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The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry

In the last fifty years Irish poets have produced some of the most exciting po-
etry in contemporary literature, writing about love and sexuality, violence and
history, country and city. This book provides a unique introduction to major
figures such as Seamus Heaney, but also introduces the reader to significant
precursors like, Louis MacNeice or Patrick Kavanagh, and vital contempo-
raries and successors: among others, Thomas Kinsella, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
and Paul Muldoon. Readers will find discussions of Irish poetry from the tra-
ditional to the modernist, written in Irish as well as English, from both North
and South. This Companion provides cultural and historical background to
contemporary Irish poetry in the contexts of modern Ireland but also in the
broad currents of modern world literature. It includes a chronology and guide
to further reading and will prove invaluable to students and teachers alike.

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006
THE CAMBRIDGE
COMPANION TO

CONTEMPORARY
IRISH POETRY
EDITED BY
MATTHEW CAMPBELL

I CAMBRIDGE
UNIVERSITY PRESS

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
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© Cambridge University Press 2003

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no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2003

A catalogue recordfor this publication is available from the British Library

ISBN-10 0-521-81301-8 hardback


ISBN-10 0-521-01245-7 paperback

Transferred to digital printing 2005

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


CONTENTS

Notes on contributors page vii


Preface x
Chronology xiii

1 Ireland in poetry: 1999, 1949, 1969 1


MATTHEW CAMPBELL

2 From Irish mode to modernisation: the poetry of


Austin Clarke 21
JOHN GOODBY

3 Patrick Kavanagh and antipastoral 42


JONATHAN ALLISON

4 Louis MacNeice: irony and responsibility 59


PETER MCDONALD

5 The Irish modernists and their legacy 76


ALEX DAVIS

6 Poetry of the 1960s: the 'Northern Ireland Renaissance' 94


FRAN BREARTON

7 Violence in Seamus Heaney's poetry 113


DILLON JOHNSTON

8 Mahon and Longley: place and placelessness 133


TERENCE BROWN

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CONTENTS

9 Between two languages: poetry in Irish, English and


Irish English 149
FRANK SEWELL

10 Boland, McGuckian, Ni Chuilleanain and the body of


the nation 169
GUINN BATTEN

11 Sonnets, centos and long lines: Muldoon, Paulin,


McGuckian and Carson 189
SHANE MURPHY

12 Performance and dissent: Irish poets in the public sphere 209


LUCY COLLINS

13 Irish poets and the world 229


ROBERT FAGGEN

14 Irish poetry into the twenty-first century 250


DAVID WHEATLEY

Further reading 268


Index 285

VI

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


CONTRIBUTORS

JONATHAN ALLISON is Associate Professor of English at the University


of Kentucky, and Director of the Yeats Summer School, Sligo. His pub-
lications include Yeats's Political Identities (1996), Patrick Kavanagh: A
Reference Guide (1996), Poetry and Contemporary Culture, edited with
Andrew Roberts (2002) and Poetry for Young People: William Butler Yeats
(2002).

GUINN BATTEN is Associate Professor of English at Washington Univer-


sity in St Louis. The author of The Orphaned Imagination: Melancholy
and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism (1998) and a co-editor of
Romantic Generations: Essays in Honor of Robert E Gleckner, she is cur-
rently completing The Muse of the Minus: Ideology and Alterity in Recent
Irish Poetry,
FRAN BREARTONis lecturer in English at Queen's University Belfast. She is
the author of The Great War in Irish Poetry: W.B. Yeats to Michael Longley
(2001) and co-editor of Last before America: Irish and American Writing
(2001).

TERENCE BROWN is Professor of Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College,


Dublin. He is also a Fellow of the College and a member of the Royal Irish
Academy and of Academia Europaea. He has published and lectured widely
on Irish writing in English and on Irish cultural history. His most recent
book is The Life of W.B.Yeats: A Critical Biography (1999, 2001). He was
awarded an honorary CMG in the New Year's Honours List in 2002 for his
contribution to Anglo-Irish relations.
MATTHEW CAMPBELL is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the
University of Sheffield. He is the author of Rhythm and Will in Victorian
Poetry (1999) and editor of books on Victorian, modern and contemporary
literature. He has published a number of articles on English and Irish poetry.

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


CONTRIBUTORS

LUCY COLLINS was educated at Trinity College Dublin and at Harvard


University. She has published on twentieth-century Irish poetry, especially
on contemporary women poets and has an additional research interest in
American poetry of the 1950s and 1960s. She is currently a lecturer in English
at St Martin's College, Carlisle.
ALEX DAVIS is Senior Lecturer in English at University College, Cork. He
is the author of A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism
(2000) and co-editor of two collections of essays, Modernism and Ireland:
The Poetry of the 1930s (1995) and Locations of Literary Modernism:
Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (2000).
ROBERT FAGGENis Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College
and the author of Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin and editor of
The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Early Poems of Robert Frost,
Selected Poems of E.A. Robinson and Striving Towards Being: The Letters
of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz.
JOHN GOODBY isa Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, Univer-
sity of Wales Swansea. He has published widely on Irish and British poetry
and his recent publications include Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Still-
ness Into History (2000) and Under the Spelling Wall: The Critical Fates
of Dylan Thomas (2003). He is the co-editor of Colonies of Belief:
Ireland's Modernists (Angel Exhaust 17, 1999), Dylan Thomas: A New
Casebook (2001) and Irish Studies: the Essential Glossary (2003). A
collection of poetry, A Birmingham Yank, was published by Arc in 1998.
DILLON JOHNSTON has published two editions of Irish Poetry after Joyce
(1985 and 1997) and The Poetic Economies of England and Ireland (2001)
and many essays, mostly about Irish and British poetry. He was founder and
director of Wake Forest University Press. He currently directs the Creative
Writing Program in Washington University in St Louis.
PETER MCDONALD is Christopher Tower Student and Tutor in Poetry in
the English Language at Christ Church, Oxford. His published poetry in-
cludes Biting the Wax (1989), Adam's Dream (1996) and As If (2001). He
is the author of Louis MacNeice: The poet in his contexts (1991), Mistaken
Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (1997) and Serious Poetry: Form
and Authority from Yeats to Hill (2002). He co-edited Selected Plays of
Louis MacNeice (1993) and is the editor of the forthcoming edition of The
Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice.
SHANE MURPHY is a lecturer at the School of English and Film Studies,
University of Aberdeen. He has published articles on Seamus Heaney, Brian

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CONTRIBUTORS

Friel, Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, and works on intertextuality


in contemporary Irish writing and the visual arts.
FRANK SEWELL is Lecturer in Creative Writing and Irish Literature at
the University of Ulster. He is the author of Modern Irish Poetry: A New
Alhambra (2000) and translator of Cathal O Searcaigh's Out in the Open

DAVID WHEATLEY lectures in English at the University of Hull. He is the


author of two collections of poetry, Thirst (1997) and Misery Hill (2000)
and co-editor with Justin Quinn of Metre magazine. He writes on poetry for
many publications, including The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian
and The London Review of Books. He is currently writing a book on con-
temporary British poetry for Cambridge University Press.

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


PREFACE

Much has happened to Irish poetry since October 1916, when Yeats wrote
about the nine-and-fifty swans that he saw at Coole Park:

Unwearied still, lover by lover


They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
(The Wild Swans at Coole')

We might expect 'Passion or conquest', love and war, from the Irish poem.
Indeed such epic material must 'attend' Yeats's wandering swans, servile to
the history which follows them. The reader, too, Yeats seems to demand, must
'Attend upon them still', to concentrate on hard stuff: mysticism, history,
poetry. These lines, though, are about more than coldness and power. Swans
may be imperious in flight, but on the water they 'paddle', and it is hard to
disconnect this word from the bathos of tentative human paddling or the
comic duck. While the poem imagines immortality, and a long history of
power and desire, it also has time for what the swans might say for us, more
grounded, creatures. These are love birds, and their paddling is in 'cold /
Companionable streams': the swans are companionable with the cold water
and one another. They are also, adapting Coleridge, 'companionable forms',
the chance discovery of something fluttering, paddling or soaring in nature
which is analogous to the passion or conquest which preoccupies poet and
reader. The swans provide the company of symbol for Yeats, as his symbol
may do in turn for his readers.
Yeats's swans are 'brilliant creatures', and this Companion looks at the
continuation of the 'brilliant creatures' of the generations of Irish poets which
followed. Yeats shadows some of the following pages, but one of the stories

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PREFACE

they tell is of a sense of confidence and cultural achievement no longer de-


pendent on cultivating heroic indifference or intellectual disdain. The com-
panionable streams of this book are those occupied by a poetry finding its
feet among the traumatic times of the divided island of Ireland in the lat-
ter half of the twentieth century. Yeats might have recognised the rural and
parochial concerns of much of the writing, even if he might not have ap-
proved of the ambivalence of its attitude to its own pastoralism. He might
also have recognised the meditation on historic events, local or international.
But this meditation may speak less of passion or conquest, and more in the
voice of the 'Lost people of Treblinka or Pompeii' in Derek Mahon's great
poem of 1975, 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford'. They cry: ' "Let the
God not abandon us / Who have come so far in darkness or in pain / We too
had our lives to live." '
It is hoped that this book will be companionable for those who seek to
understand the history and development of Irish poetry in the second half
of the twentieth century. Its chapters focus on individual figures, groups of
poets or important movements and sub-periods within the broadly 'contem-
porary'. The usual dates for what this word might mean in Irish literary
history vex many commentators. Frequently its threshold is placed around
the deaths of Yeats and James Joyce, in 1939 and 1941 respectively. Others
though, like Mahon along with Peter Fallon in their Penguin selection of
contemporary Irish verse, would rather that the 'contemporary' referred to
those who are still writing. This book opts for a middle way: the example
of Yeats, say, may be taken as given, but the work of Patrick Kavanagh or
Louis MacNeice or Sean O Riordain still reverberates for living Irish poets,
some of whom still work within or against their differing examples.
No less contentious is the notion of what constitutes 'Irish' verse, since
Irish literature continues to be written in the UK, Europe or the US. It is
also written in two languages, English and Irish (when speaking in English,
the 'Gaelic' poet would nowadays say that he or she speaks and writes in
'Irish'). Ireland as well, might ostensibly be said to be two places, the twenty-
six counties of the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Northern
Ireland, a state which is still part of the United Kingdom. This book offers
no solutions to these questions, but attempts to be a companion to those
who would wish to encounter the range of poetry written by Irish men and
women, parochial and international, Irish and English, North and South.
The chapters in this Companion also suggest the breadth of the practice of
Irish poetry in its local and international contexts and the range of its forms,
giving some sense of the characteristic imagery, metric and aesthetic scruple
of the Irish poem, while allowing a grasp of both continuity and tradition
and the innovatory and the new. The 'relevance' of the Irish poem is not

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PREFACE

just to Irish history or politics, important and pressing as that must always
be. It is also to many of the reasons why we read poems, looking to answer
questions relating to passion - love and sexuality, longing and loss - as well as
conquest. The American critic and publisher Dillon Johnston here describes
the current brilliant generation of Irish poets as likely to be remembered
for their quality along with other great literary generations, the Elizabethan,
Jacobean and Romantic English poets and those American poets who fol-
lowed the Depression. This book seeks to be companionable with those
brilliant creatures and the place from which they have come.
Ray Ryan at Cambridge University Press set this book in motion and
has watched it with vigilant enthusiasm throughout its preparation. Initial
planning is indebted to the comments of four anonymous readers at the
Press and the contributions of David Ford and Kevin Taylor. Thanks are
due to Martin Fanning of Four Courts Press and David Crone for the cover
illustration. The editor would also like to acknowledge the contributions
and advice of Alex Arnison, Brian Campbell, Claire Connolly, Valerie Cotter,
Alex Houen, Dillon Johnston and Neil Roberts.

Xll

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CHRONOLOGY

J 939 January, death of W.B. Yeats. September, 1939, outbreak of war:


Ireland neutral. Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal.
1941 January, death of James Joyce.
1942 Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger.
1945 End of Second World War. Labour landslide in United Kingdom.
1946 Denis Devlin, Lough Derg.
1949 Republic of Ireland declared and Republic leaves the British
Commonwealth. Ireland Act passed by Westminster Parliament,
guaranteeing status of Northern Ireland within UK.
1950 Death of George Bernard Shaw.
1951 Noel Browne's 'Mother and Child' scheme fails in the Republic.
1952 Sean O Riordain, Eireaball Spideoige.
1955 Austin Clarke, Ancient Lights.
1957 Mairtin O Direain, 6 Morna agus Ddnta Eile.
1958 John Montague, Forms of Exile. Thomas Kinsella, Another
September.
1959 Eamon De Valera becomes President and Sean Lemass becomes
Taoiseach.
1960 Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other
Poems. Derek Mahon and Michael Longley begin publishing in
Icarus magazine in Dublin.
1961 Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) begins broadcasting.
1962 Thomas Kinsella, Downstream.
1963 Death of Louis MacNeice. Philip Hobsbaum arrives at Queen's
University, Belfast and forms The Group'. Richard Murphy, Sailing
to an Island. Mairtin O Direain, Ar Re Dheoroil.
1964 Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems. Sean O Riordain, Brosna.
1966 Celebrations for Fiftieth Anniversary of 1916 Easter Rising. Austin
Clarke, Mnemosyne Lay in the Dust. Seamus Heaney, Death of a
Naturalist.

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CHRONOLOGY

1967 January, Civil Rights Association formed in Northern Ireland.


Death of Patrick Kavanagh. Eavan Boland, New Territory. Thomas
Kinsella, Nightwalker.
1968 October, Clashes between police and civil rights marchers in Derry.
The Honest Ulsterman founded in Belfast by James Simmons.
Richard Murphy, The Battle of Aughrim. Derek Mahon, Night
Crossing.
1969 January, Civil rights marchers attacked at Burntollet Bridge, outside
Derry. Riots in Derry. British troops arrive August. Samuel Beckett
wins Nobel Prize. Michael Longley, No Continuing City. Thomas
Kinsella, The Tain.
1970 Establishment of Provisional IRA. Innti founded in Cork with
Michael Davitt as editor.
1971 August, British government introduce internment without trial.
1972 Death toll of 496 in political violence. January, thirteen shot dead
by British troops at Bloody Sunday in Derry; April, Widgery Report
exonerates army. Thomas Kinsella, Butcher's Dozen. Suspension of
Northern Ireland parliament and Direct Rule from Westminster
introduced in North. July, nine killed and 130 wounded by
twenty-one IRA bombs on Bloody Friday in Belfast. Seamus
Heaney, Wintering Out. Derek Mahon, Lives. John Montague,
The Rough Field.
1973 Republic enters European Economic Community. Michael Longley,
An Exploded View. Paul Muldoon, New Weather. Thomas
Kinsella, New Poems.
1974 Birmingham bomb (IRA) kills twenty-one. Dublin bombs (UVF) kill
twenty-five. Death of Austin Clarke.
1977 Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, The Second Voyage.
1975 Michael Hartnett, A Farewell to English. Seamus Heaney, North.
Derek Mahon, The Snow Party.
1979 August, Murder of Lord Mountbatten and eighteen British soldiers
at Warrenpoint on same day. Seamus Heaney, Field Work.
1980 October, beginning of first hunger strike by Republican prisoners in
the Maze Prison. Tom Paulin, The Strange Museum.
19 81 May, death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike; by October, nine more
prisoners had died. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, An Dealg Droighin. Sean
O Tuama and Thomas Kinsella, An Duanaire, 1600-1900: Poems
of the Dispossessed. Medbh McGuckian, The Flower Master.
1982 Derek Mahon, The Hunt By Night.

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CHRONOLOGY

1983 Abortion referendum in Republic. Gerry Adams elected


Westminster MP. Brendan Kennelly, Cromwell. Paul Muldoon,
Quoof. Tom Paulin, Liberty Tree.
1984 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher survives Brighton bomb
attack. Seamus Heaney, Station Island.
1985 October, signing of Anglo-Irish (Hillsborough) Agreement between
British and Irish governments. 'Ulster Says No' campaign. Paul
Durcan, The Berlin Wall Cafe.
1986 Republic votes against divorce in referendum.
1987 November, eleven killed in Remembrance Day bomb at Enniskillen.
Ciaran Carson, The Irish for No. Seamus Heaney, The Haw
Lantern.
1989 Death of Samuel Beckett.
1990 Election of Mary Robinson as President. Eavan Boland, Outside
History. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Pharoah's Daughter.
1991 Michael Longley, Gorse Fires. Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, The Brazen
Serpent. Publication of Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.
1993 Downing Street declaration of no British 'strategic interest' in
Northern Ireland. Cathal O Searcaigh, Homecoming I An Bealach
'na Bhaile.
1994 IRA ceasefire.
1995 Divorce referendum passed in Republic. First Drumcree
confrontation in Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney receives Nobel
Prize. Eavan Boland, Collected Poems.
1996 Renewal of IRA violence in England. Seamus Heaney, The Spirit
Level.
1997 New IRA ceasefire. Mary McAleese elected President.
1998 Good Friday Agreement; May, joint referenda accepting it North
and South. August, Omagh bomb planted by dissident Republicans,
twenty-nine die. John Hume and David Trimble receive Nobel
Peace Prize. Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground.
1999 Northern Ireland Assembly meets, briefly, in Belfast for first time.
Flood committee hearings begin to investigate political corruption
in South. Derek Mahon, Collected Poems.
2000 Assembly revived, with nationalist and unionist ministers in cabinet.
2001 Thomas Kinsella, Collected Poems. Paul Muldoon, Poems
1968-1998. Seamus Heaney, Electric Light.
2002 Publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: The
Women's Tradition.

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Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006
MATTHEW CAMPBELL

Ireland in poetry: 1999, 1949, 1969

1
Ireland in 1999 appeared to be ending its trouble-strewn twentieth century
as a remarkably prosperous, culturally confident and optimistic place. The
Good Friday agreement of the previous year had moved the Northern Irish
Peace Process further towards the cessation of the thirty years of violence
that since 1969 had cost more than 3,500 lives. The new Northern Ireland
Assembly met, briefly, for the first time. Capitalising on the benefits of a
highly-educated workforce, the Irish embraced an increasingly globalised
market. The Irish phenomenon of rapid growth based on foreign investment
in new technologies mirrored the achievements of Asia, and the Irish econ-
omy became known as the 'Celtic Tiger'. To the world, though, Ireland still
had the glamour of its ancient traditions, music and poetry. It represented a
mix of authenticity and the intellectual and spiritual integrity of a cultural
development which the popular stage hit of the 1990s, Riverdance, pictured
stretching forwards from pre-history.
Irish literature was widely represented in the bookshops and campuses of
the anglophone world, and new Irish poetry shared in that world's appetite
for Irish music, cinema and art. Translated into many languages, the poet
Seamus Heaney had received the Nobel Prize in 1995 and was a Harvard
and Oxford Professor. The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, was
so taken by the miracles of justice envisaged in a chorus from Heaney's
1990 version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy, that he hung a
copy of it on the wall of his study in the White House. Heaney's chorus
desired that 'hope and history might rhyme', and Clinton couldn't resist
yoking it to his hometown of Hope, Arkansas in the title of his 1996 cam-
paign manifesto, Between Hope and History,* Yet Heaney's international
success had followed those of his fellow poets, Thomas Kinsella and John
Montague, who had both held prestigious posts at American universities.
Eavan Boland, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Derek Mahon were to follow. Paul

Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006


MATTHEW CAMPBELL

Muldoon was Professor in Princeton, and soon to be Oxford Professor of


Poetry.
Irish poetry appeared to be thriving, in Ireland and further afield, as writ-
ing from a small country on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe assumed cen-
tral importance for readers of contemporary literature in Ireland, Britain
and the USA. In the years around 1999 a succession of prestigious col-
lected or selected editions of Irish poets appeared, along with substantial
and internationally-read anthologies. The 1990s had begun with the pub-
lication of the monumental Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, and its
three volumes represented over a thousand years of writing in Latin, Irish
and English. The anthology had its detractors, particularly those who felt
it laid too much emphasis on the politics of Irish literature, or those who
felt that it downplayed writing by Irish women. The literary history of the
1990s, though, tells of a renaissance of women's writing, for the stage and in
fiction, as well as by poets. By 2000, an influential US-published anthology,
The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women's Poetry portrayed a wide-ranging
and diverse canon of writing. In 2002, two further volumes of the Field Day
anthology appeared, a massive act of collaborative scholarship dedicated to
the women's tradition in Irish writing.
Significant collections of Irish poetry, by men and women, in English and
Irish, were also published by English, American and Irish presses throughout
the 1990s. In 1999 the Irish-based Gallery Press published Derek Mahon's
Collected Poems, and further substantial collections appeared from Richard
Murphy and Pearse Hutchinson in 2000 and 2002. The British publishers
Faber and Faber, and the American press Farrar Straus and Giroux, had
long supported Irish poetry, and they published Seamus Heaney's Opened
Ground: Poems 1966-1996 in 1998. In 2001, Paul Muldoon's Collected
Poems, 1968-1998 also gathered together thirty prolific years of writing.
Thomas Kinsella produced his second collected volume within ten years,
from the British press Carcanet in 2001. Carcanet published Eavan Boland's
Collected Poems in 1995, and she was also published by Norton in the
United States. The work of Irish language poets, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and
Cathal O Searcaigh, appeared in handsome collaborative volumes, trans-
lated by leading Irish poets of the day. Irish poetry readings filled auditoria,
with Ni Dhomhnaill, Brendan Kennelly and Paul Durcan popular perform-
ers of their poems and satiric commentators on the public realm. Durcan's
1999 volume, Greetings from our Friends in Brazil contained a long elegy
written for the twenty-nine people who had died in the Omagh bombing
of the previous year, but it also contained poems about the years in
which Mary Robinson had been the first woman President of Ireland. Sup-
porter of the arts, dedicatee of volumes by Durcan and Boland, she was

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Ireland in poetry

one of the great liberalising influences on a changing Ireland. She was later
to serve as a United Nations High Commissioner.
However, the investigations begun in 1999 by the Flood Tribunal in the
Republic of Ireland, were the most prominent reminder of the corruption
that had long attended southern Irish public life. Neither was optimism en-
couraged by the atrocity at Omagh nor the difficulties that the new Northern
Ireland Assembly experienced in its early meetings. Nonetheless, constitu-
tional and social change had come. In Northern Ireland, the devolved powers
granted to the Northern Ireland Assembly matched those the Labour govern-
ment of the United Kingdom had granted to similar assemblies in Scotland
and Wales. From the 1980s onwards, not only politicians, but also histori-
ans, novelists, poets, critics and journalists, had shared new ways of thinking
about the culture and history of Ireland, in relation to Britain, Europe and
beyond. This being Ireland, controversy attended every part of this new
thinking, but it centred around assumptions about its history as a colonised
and now postcolonial country, and of the challenge of its new status as an
important part of the European Union in a global market. There was still
the continuing fact of the partition of the island, and other divisions existed,
social and economic as well as sectarian and political. But these began to
take new forms.
Emigration, for instance, has long been a fact of Irish life, and much Irish
writing still took place outside Ireland. The enormous popular success of
Irish-American writer Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996) perpetuated
the view that exile was the only antidote to poverty, repression and endless
rain. But in a shrinking world, the poetry still told of the sense of place, voice
and community, even from displaced locations. The poets Matthew Sweeney
and Bernard O'Donoghue wrote Irish verse from London or Oxford. Eamon
Grennan pursued a successful critical and poetic career in the USA. A younger
poet like Justin Quinn could move to Prague and still co-edit the influential
magazine of the younger Irish poets, Metre, exploring connections between
the Irish experience and the no-less historic changes of the Eastern Europe
of the 1990s.
Exile and change, however, did engage the Irish poet and his or her charac-
teristic mode of elegy, still preoccupied with the sense that change may also
mean loss, the loss of the traditions and certainties of a recognisable national
identity. As the Irish poem was written in a world facing environmental as
well as economic and social change, so it adapted its traditional concerns
with elegy or nature, to these new conditions. Paul Muldoon's 1994 volume
The Annals of Chile was written from the United States, and contained two
great elegies, 'Incantata' for a former lover, and 'Yarrow' for his mother.
They are concerned with the failing of the human body and the eradication

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

of the rural past. Both poems end, grief-stricken and barely articulate be-
fore the facts of death from cancer, as they also watch a fast-disappearing
pastoral world, in which even the singing birds - corncrake, bittern - face
extinction.
The paradox may be that such writing about loss - personal, environ-
mental or social - can come together in work such as Muldoon's, major
poetry written with confidence for an increasingly international audience.
That sense of its own confidence meant that Irish poetry could pursue its as-
similation not just of the English, American or Irish language traditions, but
also various world literatures, Eastern European, Hispanic, Modern Greek.
Seemingly assured of modern classic status, in the 1990s Irish poetry also
sounded an older classical note. As the poets tiptoed through the possi-
ble peace of the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Michael Longley,
Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Muldoon all turned to the eclogue or the
pastoral elegy. The models were Homeric or Virgilian, and their recurrent
note was of exhaustion after war. Written from an old world, they faced
the unknown world of the future in poems of homecoming or retreat. But
they knew that peace was the first pre-requisite. In his sonnet 'Ceasefire',
first published in 1994, Longley re-imagines a conversation from the Trojan
wars, between Achilles and Priam. It reminds its reader of the difficulty of a
necessary forgiveness, as it is allowed to conclude with the full rhyme of the
concluding couplet of the English sonnet: 'I get down on my knees and do
what must be done / And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son'.2

II
Fifty years previously, around 1949, such confidence was hard to find. In
the cinema, popular perceptions of Irish culture and politics veered be-
tween those in the English film-maker Carol Reed's dark tale of a wounded
gunman on the run in Belfast in his 1947 Odd Man Out and the Irish-
American director John Ford's piece of 1952 west-of-Ireland paddywhackery,
The Quiet Man. Yet in 1949, Ireland had made a constitutional assertion of
its independence. On a state visit to Canada the previous September, the Irish
Taoiseach (Prime Minister), John Aloysius Costello, announced that he was
going to declare Ireland a Republic. Since 1921, twenty-six of the thirty-two
counties of the island of Ireland had been self-governing while remaining
within what was left of the British Empire, the Commonwealth. In 1937, the
previous Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, had framed a Constitution for the new
state which allowed it effective independence from Britain. The aim was to
further the establishment of the institutions of an Ireland which was rural in
population, agricultural in economy, Roman Catholic in religion and Gaelic

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Ireland in poetry

in culture. Irish was to join English as the official dual language of the state.
Ireland also sought to be non-aligned in foreign allegiance. Neutrality was to
follow through the 1939-45 'Emergency', as the Irish referred to the period
of war in which much of the rest of the world was to participate. The further
break-up of the British Empire followed the war, with the British granting in-
dependence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma, and the establishment of
the state of Israel in 1948 on former British territories in Palestine. In 1949,
Ireland and India declared themselves Republics. Unlike India, Ireland also
left the Commonwealth.3
Surely now, Ireland was free and confident, self-sufficient in politics and
culture? Given that it had secured its independent status, could it not also
continue to contribute to the growing artistic culture of international moder-
nity for which its writers had been so important? In the early years of the
century, the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre had proved a signif-
icant example to national theatrical movements across the world. In 1922,
James Joyce had published a novel set entirely in one day in Dublin, Ulysses,
from which world fiction has yet to recover. In 1923, William Butler Yeats
won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1925, George Bernard Shaw was
to receive the same accolade. All of these achievements had been gained in
writing in the English language, a language which the Irish had used to estab-
lish a powerful national culture with an international readership. However,
Yeats and Joyce died in 1939 and 1941 respectively. Joyce had lived across
Europe, and Shaw had lived in London. The writer who was to be Ireland's
next Nobel Laureate (1969), Samuel Beckett, had left the safety of Dublin
to return to Paris in 1940, deciding that it was better to lend resistance to
the occupied French during the war than maintain the neutrality that his
Irish citizenship gave him. 'You simply couldn't stand by with your arms
folded',4 Beckett later said, in marked distinction from the policy of the Irish
government. After the war, he decided to write in French.
Politically, the April 1949 declaration of the Republic of Ireland was fol-
lowed in June of that year by a reminder of one reason why the constitutional
future of the new Republic might not be entirely settled. The recently-elected
British Labour government retaliated with the Ireland Act, confirming the
status of the six counties of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom
as long as a majority within that state voted to remain British. While it
was to benefit greatly from the post-war health and educational reforms of
the nascent British Welfare State, the culture and government of Northern
Ireland was still remarkably conservative. The example of the poets Louis
MacNeice and John Hewitt was to be important for a later generation of
Ulster writers, but it was received with ambivalence in mid-century Ulster.
The son of a Church of Ireland bishop, MacNeice was educated at an English

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public school and at Oxford, and had lived through, and participated in, the
highly politicised movements of British 1930s writing. He was closely in-
volved with a leftwing set that included W.H. Auden and the Soviet spy
Anthony Blunt. While MacNeice was ambivalent to the politic commitment
of his friends, he had directed a diatribe towards Ireland in the sixteenth
section of his 1939 Autumn Journal. It contained a swingeing attack on fac-
tionalised Ulster and Irish politics. 'Kathaleen Ni Houlihan!' MacNeice had
exclaimed, 'Why must a country, like a ship or a car, be always female /
Mother or sweetheart?' 'Yet we love her forever and hate our neighbour',
he continued, 'And each one in his will / Binds his heirs to continuance of
hatred'.5 While MacNeice worked for the BBC in London for most of his
life, Ireland exercised a strong pull even on this self-consciously deracinated
intellectual. He was to write his best poetry just before he died in the early
1960s, but this uncertainty of identity - an Ulster protestant Irish poet writ-
ing at the heart of the English Establishment - and the uneven quality of his
work in the late 1940s and 1950s, meant that his influence was not as great
then as it has become for those, like Derek Mahon or Michael Longley, who
have paid tribute to his sceptical intelligence.
Hewitt was an Ulster Protestant of Scottish descent, and his work empha-
sised regional identities within the United Kingdom. He could still describe
himself, though, in the title of a 1945 poem, as 'Once Alien Here'. The poet
movingly sought to speak with an 'easy voice', while aware that his British
or southern neighbours possessed 'the graver English, lyric Irish tongue'.6 A
socialist in a state run by a Unionist party still dominated by the landed inter-
est, his career as a museum curator was balked and in 1957 he had to leave
for a job in Coventry, in England. There he helped in the cultural rebuilding
of a city destroyed by war. It would take a particularly unusual imagination
to find succour in the climate of the unreconstructed Belfast Hewitt left be-
hind, like that of the English poet Philip Larkin, who travelled the other way.
Coventry-born, he arrived to a job in Belfast in 1950. Belfast taught him,
in the title of one of his poems, 'The Importance of Elsewhere' (1955). His
strangeness in that part of the United Kingdom kept him 'in touch' with his
characteristic sense of social 'difference'.7
As Ireland faced the second half of the twentieth century the poetic mood
was one of estrangement, division, cynicism and aftermath. The best writing
continued to take place in exile, and both parts of Ireland appeared to be
turning their backs on the great changes which were about to beset a post-
war world. In the South, the poets were, in the main, dissenting voices. With
a few exceptions - Beckett's friends the poet and curator Thomas McGreevy
and the diplomat-poet Denis Devlin, or the Irish-language poet Mairtin O
Direain - they were attuned neither to world movements in modern art

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nor the isolationist project of the new Republic. The farmer-poet Patrick
Kavanagh's 1942 The Great Hunger had shown the pastoral ideal of the
new nation suffering from spiritual and sexual famine. Alluding in his title
to the potato famine of a century previously, in which a million Irish had
died and after which many more had emigrated, Kavanagh had presented
the actualities of toil and cultural repression in a rural world in which the
future might only be viewed with cynicism and despair. His elders and con-
temporaries, the poets Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon or Sean O' Riordain,
the novelists and story-writers, Flann O'Brien, Sean O'Faoilain and Frank
O'Connor, and the playwright Brendan Behan, made for a conspicuously dis-
affected group when they could be conceived of as a group at all. Memoirs
of late 1940s and 1950s Dublin, such as the poet Anthony Cronin's Dead As
Doornails, tell of begrudgery and anti-modern inwardness in the environs
of Dublin's Palace Bar.8
The great danger, according to Kavanagh, was a settling down into provin-
cialism. While Hewitt emphasised regionalism, Kavanagh contrasted the
provincial with the parochial, since the parish was the basis of 'all great civil-
isations . . . Greek Israelite, English'. An embrace of the parish would then
enable Irish poetry to return to international relevance, since, 'Parochialism
is universal: it deals with the fundamentals'.9 A signal moment thus occurs in
the sonnet 'Epic' (1951), where he compares a dispute over a field boundary
to the 1938 Hitler-Chamberlain agreement over Czechoslovakia. 'Which /
Was more important?' he asks, and is answered by the ghost of Homer: 'I
made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance'.10
Epic may be made out of the 'local row' of a parochial poetry and politics, and
Kavanagh shows it gaining expression in the small-scale sonnet form. The
poet Eavan Boland recalls meeting with the older Kavanagh in the 1960s.
She remembers that for all of her distinctness from him, not least that of
gender, she found in work such as this 'an example of dissidence . . . some-
one who had used the occasion of his life to rebuff the expectations and
preconceptions of the Irish poem'.11
Emphasising the small-scale and the parochial as he did, and then turning
to satirise the provincial culture around him, Kavanagh's example was to
be great for the generation that began to publish in the years following his
death in 1967. Just as pastoral or anti-pastoral had given way to satire in
Kavanagh's post-1949 work, so even established poets like Austin Clarke
felt bound to mark their distinctness from the burgeoning institutions of the
new Republic. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, censorship had
been prolific throughout the period of the Free State, and even the spiritually-
inclined came to find themselves satirically removed from the growing cul-
tural and sexual repression of Church and State. Kavanagh's great hunger

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had been in one sense that of frustrated male sexual desire. Padraic Fallon's
love poems from this period, too, tell of the fantasies of the Irishman. Fallon's
goddesses, nuns or whores are placed in modern surroundings, influenced by
Freud or anthropology. As in the poem 'Women', however, they still remain
uncertain of how to move beyond an imagery inherited from Yeats:

But a woman is a lie


And I have a tower to climb, the tower of me,
And a quarrel to settle with the sky
But 'rest' says the woman. 'O lean back more:
I am a wife and a mother's knee,
I am the end of every tower.'12
There is ambivalence here: the poem either rejects Yeatsian self-sufficiency
in the embrace of domesticity and marriage or it reiterates the auto-erotic's
ultimate fantasy. But it does tell of an adaptation of the Irish poem to chang-
ing conceptions of sexuality, no matter how awkwardly male that new form
initially was.
In 'The Siege of Mullingar, 1963', a poet of the next generation, John
Montague, viewed with delight the frank sexuality of the youth at that year's
Fleadh Cheoil (music festival). The poem's refrain parodies Yeats, before
taking a dig at his dissident elders (his emphasis): 'Puritan Ireland's dead
and gone I A myth of O'Connor and O'Faolain'.13 Maybe the conflation
of political and personal dissidence with the sexual repression of Church
and State was passing, but one important poem remained to be published
from these dry years, Clarke's 1966 Mnemosyne Lay in the Dust. His long
career had suffered in conditions of personal breakdown, religious crisis and
political trauma, and the attention that his early work gave to instilling the
rhythms of Irish-language poetry within the English poem had given way in
the 1950s to satire and frequent polemic. Clarke's breakdown occurred in
1919, a year of revolutionary insurgence, and the poem tells of personal crisis
against a background of initial political upheaval and liberation, written
through conditions of reaction and repression. The poem of alienation and
recovery was not to appear until the year of the celebrations of the fiftieth
anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
One of those executed after that rising, the poet and critic Thomas Mac-
Donagh, had taught Clarke much at University College Dublin. But Clarke's
later style was to show ambivalence towards what MacDonagh called the
'the Irish Mode', the mixing of the accents of Irish language poetry with
the metric of the English poem. In these revisionary conditions, though, the
Irish language poem continued to thrive. The leader of the Rising, after all,
was an Irish language poet, Padraic Pearse. The Irish poetry of the 1950s

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is marked by innovation and an openness to experiment that is rare in the


corresponding English-language poem. Sean O Riordain, Mairtin O Direain
and Maire Mhac an tSaoi produced poetry influenced by American and
English modernist models. O Riordain's 1952 Eireaball Spideoige introduced
a poet influenced alike by James Joyce and the Catholic theology with which
Joyce quarrelled for so long. The poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill has complained
that accounts of Irish poetry around mid-century ignore these poets.14 Yet
the audience that spoke and read Irish was small and dwindling. An Aran
Islands writer like O Direain knew that the western rural areas in which
Irish survived was suffering waves of emigration which rivalled those of the
nineteenth century.
The new beginning of 1949 was not matched with a new beginning in
Irish culture. In the two decades that followed, the continuing partition of the
island, the conservative political majorities associated with the dominance of
non-conformist Protestantism in the North and Roman Catholicism in the
South, and the struggle between that conservatism and attempts to modernise
the Irish economy, seemed to be returning Ireland to a provincial backwater,
unnoticed by the world. Yet as Montague's 'Siege of Mullingar' suggests,
even this Ireland couldn't ignore the 1960s. The growing affluence of western
economies did not leave Ireland alone. And the struggles for Civil Rights in
the American South and the student risings of 1968 in the US and France
were not unnoticed by the Irish of 1969.

Ill
After a decade of economic modernisation, the Ireland of the late 1960s was
lambasted by Thomas Kinsella, in his long modernist poem Nightwalker
(1967). Kinsella had served in the office of T.K. Whitaker, the Irish Secretary
for Finance. Working with the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, Whitaker suggested
that one reason for Ireland's economic problems was the country's isola-
tionist approach to economic, and by association foreign, policy. He recom-
mended that the Irish economy expand, and that it open itself up to increased
foreign investment. Kinsella, for one, saw danger in what such changes might
mean for an Ireland which had recently left the Commonwealth but would
soon exchange it for the Common Market (in 1972, the Republic voted to
join the European Economic Community). In Nightwalker, the disillusioned
civil servant Kinsella described an Ireland suffering from the odd mix of
residual Republicanism, Catholic conservatism and a freed entrepreneurial
business class, sponsored by a new class of politician, often less than scrupu-
lous in its dealings. Rather than be faced with a statue of liberty, say, or even
Kathaleen Ni Houlihan at the mouth of Dublin harbour, the Irish are greeted

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

by another female allegorical figure, 'Robed in spattered iron . . . Productive


Investment'. She asks of the nation that would treat with her: 'Lend me your
wealth, your cunning and your drive, / Your arrogant refuse'.15 Kinsella is
ambiguous on the subject of the dissenting poet: whether this means that
the arrogant who refuse are mere refuse, rubbish, to Productive Investment,
or whether Ireland's refuse be allowed the arrogance of a wasteful modern
economy is not clear. What is clear is the poem's turn to elegy for the loss
of the Gaelic culture which was supposedly supported in the constitution of
the greedily modernising state. The third section ends with Irish silent across
irrecoverable time: 'A dying language echoes / across a century's silence'.16
Kinsella's concerns in Nightwalker were primarily with the South, with
language, and the unaccommodated self of the modern poet. They were not,
explicitly at least, with the unsettled 'national question' of how to accom-
modate a divided island. But events in Northern Ireland were soon to affect
the whole island, and the United Kingdom as well. In January 1967, the
Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had been formed, pledged to re-
store the equal electoral representation of Catholic and Protestant, primarily
within the increasingly segregated and ghettoised cities of Northern Ireland.
Poet and critic Seamus Deane's 1996 memoir-novel of the 1950s and 1960s,
Reading in the Dark presents a grim picture of the poverty and repression
suffered by working-class Catholics in the city in which he was born.17 To
its majority Catholic and nationalist population the city was called Derry. Its
Unionist City Council - guaranteed a majority by electoral divisions which
were engineered or 'gerrymandered' according to religion - insisted on its
seventeenth century colonial title, Londonderry. Divided by class and reli-
gion, Northern Ireland was unable even to agree on the names of places.
For the Civil Rights protestors, Northern Ireland was like the southern US
states, a divided part of a supposedly liberal modern democracy.
The initial years of protest for civil rights were non-violent, but the ruling
Unionist party was slow to grant the legitimacy of the claims of the minority.
After all, they could point to the religious intolerance and corruption of the
new Ireland south of the Border as a warning against conceding too much
to those who wished to rejoin their co-religionists. A subsequent escalation
of violence followed, through rioting and the heavy-handed response of the
police. In August 1969, increasing civil disorder meant the arrival of British
troops on to the streets of Derry and Belfast. By November 1969, eventual
electoral reform righted the civil wrongs which had led to this state of affairs.
Instead of peace and political settlement, however, the violence was to get
worse. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was conspicuously absent from
these early 'troubles', but the actions of armed police and troops quickly
led to increased support. In January 1970, the Provisional IRA was born,

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committed to an 'armed struggle' in the cause of the expulsion of the British


and the reunification of Ireland. In 1969, eighteen people died in political
violence in Northern Ireland, ten of them killed by the army or police. But
only three years later, in 1972, the worst year of the troubles, 496 were to
die, 234 killed by the IRA. Political terror became an everyday occurrence
in Northern Ireland, and in April 1972 the British suspended the Northern
Irish parliament and assumed Direct Rule.
It is tempting to find consolation for historical trauma in imaginative ren-
naissance. Coincident with the upsurge of political violence in Ireland around
1969 was the extraordinary increase in the volume and quality of Irish po-
etry. However, while historical events may have provided the conditions in
which this poetry was written, they cannot entirely account for its causes.18
Landmark collections from both North and South appeared at the end of the
1960s and early 1970s. Kinsella's Nightwalker volume contained his great
poem of illness and rebirth 'Phoenix Park', and paved the way for the experi-
mental poetry of his subsequent career. Richard Murphy had also viewed the
divisions of Irish history in his inventive long sequence of 1968, The Battle
of Aughrim. The poem mixed lyric, epic, ballad and history in an account
of the final defeat of Gaelic Ireland in 1691, and the subsequent flight of
the Wild Geese. The internationalist, anti-clerical and libertarian poems in
Pearse Hutchinson's 1969 Expansions would have been recognised across
much of the more peacefully dissenting late 1960s Europe and America.
Imaginative and political energies were released in many countries across
the world, liberalised by pop music, cinema and a briefly-politicised youth
culture, and Ireland shared in this great upsurge of creativity.
Poetic energy did not come only from the powerful subject matter that
local events now suggested. The 1960s had seen the development of a newly
thriving poetry scene in Belfast, famously gathering around the poet and critic
Philip Hobsbaum. A product of the universities of Cambridge (F.R. Leavis)
and Sheffield (William Empson), and friend of English poets Ted Hughes
and Peter Redgrove, Hobsbaum had arrived to teach in Queen's University
Belfast in 1963. He subsequently established a writer's seminar, 'The Group',
and was to find that young talent of the calibre of Seamus Heaney, Michael
Longley or James Simmons joined in its famously combative discussions. In
1966, Heaney's first book, Death of a Naturalist, appeared from the English
publishers Faber and Faber. Rural in subject matter, romantic in outlook,
highly formal in execution, the book showed the influence of Kavanagh,
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost. It was already demonstrating
the range of this new poetry in its appeal to Irish, English and American lit-
erary traditions. Simmons founded a poetry journal, The Honest Ulsterman
in 1968, and in the same year Oxford University Press published Derek

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

Mahon's Night Crossing. Longley's No Continuing City was to come out


from Macmillan in 1969. The poets were talking, performing and publish-
ing well before the outbreak of violence in 1969.
Derek Mahon had maintained his distance from the Hobsbaum coterie,
allowing the influence of French literature and Samuel Beckett to develop his
characteristic tone of social and philosophical estrangement. But very early
after the events of 1969, he made one of the most telling statements about
these poets' relation to the history unfolding around them. In a piece from
1970 called 'Poetry in Northern Ireland', Mahon was careful to distinguish
between the traditions of Protestant poets like himself, Longley and Simmons
and those of the Catholic poets, Heaney and John Montague. The voices of
the latter could remain 'true to the ancient intonations' of Ireland. They
could thus 'assimilate to the traditional aesthetics which are their birthright
some of (to risk pretentiousness) the cultural fragmentation of our time'.
Speaking of Longley and Simmons, but implicitly about himself, Mahon
makes the contrast: 'ironic heirs of a threadbare colonialism, [they] have as
their birthright that very fragmentation'. The difference may seem small, but
it relates not only to the greater cultural fragmentation of modernity, but the
smaller-scale local rows of Irish religion and politics.
Mahon ends with a vision of the function of poetry within these competing
local and international fragmentations:

Battles have been lost, but a war remains to be won. The war I mean is not, of
course, between Protestant and Catholic but between the fluidity of a possible
life (poetry is a great lubricant) and the rigor mortis of archaic postures, polit-
ical and cultural. The poets themselves have taken no part in political events,
but they have contributed to that possible life, or to the possibility of that
possible life; for the act of writing is itself political in the fullest sense. A good
poem is a paradigm of good politics - of people talking to each other, with
honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness; and
we have had darkness enough, God knows, for a long time.19

The darkness was to continue for nearly three decades, but Mahon's lubri-
cant, his good poem which is the paradigm of good politics, focused the
debate on the political responsibilities of the poet in the violent decades
ahead.
The poets did feel a need to respond, touched as many were by atrocity.
How, then, can we learn from the way the Irish poem treated these events?
Writing in 1999 about the Belfast artist David Crone, Michael Longley says
that Crone's attitude to the Troubles in his work is that of 'the Ulster poets . . .
an oblique approach'. Crone, he says, 'prefers us to view his concerned

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expression out of the corner of his eye'.20 Taking its title from a poem of
Mahon, Frank Ormsby's anthology of poetry about the Troubles, A Rage for
Order, contains oblique and direct treatments of the history and politics of
the period. One event, though, in January 1972, when British soldiers shot
dead thirteen civil rights protesters on 'Bloody Sunday', produced expres-
sions which were varied in their approach to the obliqueness and concern
appropriate for the poem in the circumstances. Ormsby gives a small selec-
tion of Bloody Sunday poems, by poets North and South: Thomas McCarthy,
Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney.21 The responses range from invective to
elegy. Heaney also wrote ballad verses on the subject and sent them to Luke
Kelly of The Dubliners folk group to sing. Kelly never took up the offer, and
Heaney waited twenty-five years before he consented to the publication of
the ballad in a 1997 commemorative issue of the Derry Journal.2Z The bal-
lad, 'The Road to Derry', courts what is rare for Heaney, the risk of direct
rather than oblique political comment: 'And in the dirt lay justice like an
acorn in the winter / Till its oak would sprout in Derry where the thirteen
men lay dead'.
The ballad measure was also adopted by Thomas Kinsella, in what is the
most outspoken of poetic responses to the event, his 1972 Butchers Dozen.
Kinsella's anger was provoked by the findings of the official inquiry, the
Widgery Report, in which the British Lord Chief Justice exonerated those
responsible for the killing. Like Heaney's ballad, it recounts a visit to the
city:
I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
-Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
Mixing testimony from the ghosts of the dead in the manner of an eigh-
teenth century Irish vision poem, or aisling, Butcher's Dozen reaches for the
tone of saeva indignatio of the satirising classical poet, a bitterness which is
quite deliberately removed from Mahon's 'people talking to each other, with
honest subtlety, at a profound level'.
It is a poet of the succeeding generation to these poets, Paul Muldoon,
who brings together these seemingly conflicting tonal approaches to the fact
of atrocity in a heightened political climate. Muldoon's 1973 debut New
Weather ended with a long poem which he subsequently said was a 'direct
response' to Bloody Sunday, 'The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi'.23 The poem
tells of the last member of a tribe of Californian Indians. His death will mean
the eventual extinction of his people, in conditions that imply genocide. The

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

conceit of the conclusion to the poem is chilling, as it envisages the dead


lying side by side across the land:
I realised that if his brothers
Could be persuaded to lie still,
One beside the other
Right across the Great Plains,
Then perhaps something of this original
Beauty would be retained.24

This is not just a play with the picturesque, or the chill of seeking to make
aesthetic the facts of atrocity or death through the recreation of 'original /
Beauty'. Muldoon's environmentalism also grieves the loss to nature of the
tribes who subsisted across the Great Plains, those who were for centuries
its indigenous people. But in its evocation of a story of colonialism and the
destruction of a natural and social order, 'The Year of the Sloes' brings itself
obliquely back to the matter of the Ireland from which it was written in 1972.
Its politics may indeed appear to be a direct response, given the narrative of
genocide that they tell in the context of the bloody events of January 1972. It
is the form, though, which expresses elegiac concern out of the corner of its
eye: the poet doesn't so much take sides as construct colonialism and atrocity
in allegorical or parabolic terms, as Emily Dickinson might say, telling the
truth slant.
It would be a mistake to think that all Irish poems from this period were
preoccupied with violence or atrocity. While elegy might be a characteristic
mode of Irish poetry, it is one which can be private as well as public. The
still-dominant Irish pastoral or even anti-pastoral mode showed an Irish
culture still substantially agricultural in economy and rural in preoccupation,
continuously engaged with the natural and the environment. Formally too,
Irish poetry sought to find its shape in both of the languages of Ireland, aware
that it was written from within a dual or divided linguistic tradition. After
the innovations of Murphy's narrative of the defeat of Gaelic Ireland in The
Battle of Aughrim, Irish poets played with a mixing of genres and language.
Kinsella conflated his Butchers Dozen with elegies for John F. Kennedy and
the Irish composer Sean O Riada, thus linking the historical and the personal.
The year 1969 had seen the publication of his great translation of Irish
myth, the Cuchulainn cycle of The Tain. Yet Kinsella's New Poems of 1973
returned to the matter of family and memory as he embraced the longer
evolutionary histories of Darwin, while attending to myth read through the
Jungian archetype.
The Tain appeared from Liam Miller's innovative Dolmen Press, with
striking illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. Dolmen also published John

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Montague's The Rough Field in 1972. The loss of Irish also haunts a num-
ber of its lyrics, which Montague had brought together from many of his
poems of the 1960s. The new sequence of the poems then told of the history
of the divided mid-Ulster townland from which Montague came, attending
to Kavanagh's prescriptive parochialism. But it is the volume's innovative
physical sense of itself which is most striking, influenced as it was by ex-
periments with the concrete poem in the American modernist tradition, by
Ezra Pound or Charles Olsen. The book's mixture of lyric, narrative and
newspaper report was matched by its appearance with illustrations from
sixteenth-century woodcuts, and the sequence was performed and recorded
with the musicians who were later to become The Chieftains.
Montague's sequence brought together pastoral concern and modernist
invention, but it was still ambivalent in its grief for the loss of the continuity
of tradition and in its concern for what Mahon terms the 'cultural frag-
mentation' of the new. In the words of poet and critic Dennis O'Driscoll,
speaking about the international significance of Montague's 'global region-
alism', 'The global village casts light on the deserted village'.25 A similar
engagement with the politics of pastoral - land, ownership and sovereignty -
may have been inherent in this new global regionalism, but it also meant
that Irish poets sought equivalences outside the violent confines of parish,
province or nation. Seamus Heaney's North (1975) received the greatest
international acclaim (and local controversy) in these years. Its inventive-
ness was parabolic or allegorical, seeking historic or archetypal equivalences
across Northern Europe and in classical myth for seemingly unbearable local
events. It ended, though, in an internal exile of a sort, with 'Exposure', writ-
ten from County Wicklow in the Republic. As Heaney says in that poem, he
had now 'escaped from the massacre'. Other poets were to follow.

IV
How was Irish poetry to change between the late 1960s and early 1970s
and the last years of the twentieth century? The answer, in part, lies as much
in the matter of the typical allegorical or parabolic approach to history in
these poems, as in any sense of historical change. The objection initially
came from those who had been cast as images in the allegories of the Irish
tradition, and not as poets: 'An e go n-iompaionn baineann fireann / Nuair
a iompaionn bean ina file?' (Is it that the feminine turns masculine / when a
woman turns into a poet?) Sean'O Riordain had asked in 'Banfhile' ('Woman
Poet'). 'Ni file ach filiocht an bhean.' (A woman is not a poet, but poetry.)26
Montague's Rough Field and Heaney's North had both taken a common
trope from the aisling poems of Irish literary tradition, that of the figure

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

of the nation as a woman, sometimes beautiful, sometimes aged, frequently


evanescent, usually violated. Then, through the 1980s and 1990s, the writing
of Irish women poets such as Eavan Boland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Medbh
McGuckian and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, began to engage in debate about
their position as metaphor in the history of Irish poetry, and the whole
question of the oblique approach implicit in metaphor itself. This, after all,
was writing taking place after the other great changes wrought on literature
in the late 1960s, and new thinking in feminism, psychoanalysis, linguistics
or philosophy.
Boland was a major critical as well as poetic figure in this new turn of
Irish poetry towards a critique of its traditionally-gendered forms. In the
essay 'Outside History', in Object Lessons (1995), she discusses a ballad
elegy by Francis Ledwidge for the executed leaders of the 1916 rising, which
relates the keen of a 'Poor Old Woman' mourning the loss of her blackbirds.
The poem revives old figures and forms as it faces a new political situation,
adapting tradition for the purposes of sounding grief at the failure of a present
insurgency. Boland fastens on the figure of the woman, who disappears out
of the poem as soon as the meaning becomes clear:
The woman, on the other hand, is a diagram. By the time the poem is over, she
has become a dehumanized ornament. When her speaking partfinishes,she
goes out of the piece and out of our memory. At best she has been the engine
of the action, a convenient frame for the proposition.27
The mourning nation is represented by a female figure in Ledwidge's poem
which is merely one example of an Irish poetic tradition in which women
appear as mere diagram or ornament. In O Riordain's terms, they are poetry
not poet.
Boland's sequence 'Outside History' (1990) ends kneeling at a roadside
beside the dead of the Troubles, bemoaning that she has come along 'Too
late'. In the third poem in the sequence, 'The Making of an Irish Goddess',
the myth of the sudden loss of the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, is used to
represent the Famine, that great historical trauma of the nineteenth century
to which Kavanagh had alluded in the title of his Great Hunger. The poet
uses her own scarred menopausal body as an image for the infertility of the
land and the scar in the national memory. She points to her concealment of
'the stitched, healed blemish of a scar' and says that it 'must be // an accurate
inscription / of that agony' of Famine.28 Moving all the way from her own
body to the horrors of famine and cannibalism, Boland attempts tofigurethe
national trauma through the metonym of her own Irish woman poet's bodily
history. That 'must be' doubly reinforces the traditional figure, describing a

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reaching after significance ('ah, that must be it!') and an unavoidable ne-
cessity, as if there is nothing she can do to avoid the use of the body as an
inscription for what it must be.
Generations of Irish poets after 1999 may not feel bound to this determi-
nation to represent the body of the nation. Certainly Boland's poem ends
with a vision of her daughter, 'her back turned to me', and thus hopes for
the future. For Irish, too, there is hope, although the Irish language poet
Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill has found some horror in the responsibilities of her
success. In'Cailleach'/'Hag' she dreams that she herself has become the Kerry
landscape and consequently allows her typically whimsical reaction to this
fantasy give way to horror, as she sees the dangers of binding her daughter
to this tradition. Walking along a beach, she is surprised by the daughter's
crying: ' "Cad ta ort?" "O, a Mhaim, taim sceimhlithe. / Tuigeadh dom go
raibh na conic ag bogadail, / gur fathach mna a bhi ag luascadh a ciocha, / is
go n-eireodh si aniar agus mise d'iosfadh" '. (' "What's wrong?" "O, Mam,
I'm scared stiff, /1 thought I saw the mountains heaving / like a giantess, with
her breasts swaying, / about to loom over, and gobble me up" '.) 29 This is a
gothic note, in which the fantasy figure becomes real, terrifying those who
might object to the continuance of such repression. But Ni Dhomhnaill's
poetry is also a welcome reminder to the reader that sometimes visions of
women in Irish poems may not inevitably be symbolic of the national fantasy.
Irish love poetry has its earthy, material tradition too.
Younger Irish poets thus strive to express not only the nightmare of the
dead generations but the need to get away from their deathly influence.
This younger generation may be less than patient with the traditions of their
parents. Caitriona O'Reilly's poem 'Fragment', in The Nowhere Birds (2001)
takes the daughter's position and watches a mother suffering dreams of an
animated land - and seascape. She views with dread the creatures from the
past emerging from the sea of nightmare or memory.
I see them, those obsessive dead -
their watery features sea-blurred, merged, evasive.
I hold my breath above her sinking head,
dreading their opaque past and fossil histories,
inky and indistinct as night water.30
The danger is of being dragged not into 'an accurate inscription' but the
oblique allegorical tradition which prizes the 'merged' forms of the hybrid,
or the 'evasive' positions of the colonised. For O'Reilly, like Boland's and Ni
Dhomhnaill's daughters, the alternative to embracing the new thing that has
happened is the continuation of the family nightmare.

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As Ireland and the world contemplated the future of a new millennium,


the 1990s brought a number of significant commemorations to a land still
obsessed with memories of its violent past. These might have been of recent
events (the 1997 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, for which Heaney
had released his ballad), those earlier in the century (the 75th anniversary
celebrations of the Easter Rising were notably muted), or those from a longer
past (commemorations for the 150th anniversary of the Famine continued
throughout the decade and 1998 brought celebrations for the bicentenary
of the Rising of 1798.) In millennial circumstances, though, memory might
have given way to thoughts about the future, and thoughts about the role
that poetry might play in its shaping.
In 1998, Ciaran Carson gave his version of the Irish tradition of imagining
lands beyond the known. These places might only exist in an impossible time,
the Twelfth of Never", to adapt the title of his sonnet sequence. Nonetheless,
they are the lands that poetry might be within its responsibilities to imagine.
In the sestet of 'Tib's Eve', he says,

This is the land of the green rose and the lion lily,
Ruled by Zeno's eternal tortoises and hares,
Where everything is metaphor and simile:
Somnambulists, we stumble through this paradise
From time to time, like words repeated in our prayers,
Or storytellers who convince themselves that truths are lies.31

From the reminder of more than three hundred years celebrating the Battle of
the Boyne every Twelfth of July, through Zeno's paradox of the immeasurable
instant at which one object overtakes another, to the paradox of a time
outside time, the twelfth of never, Carson imagines an allegorical place which
exists in metaphor and simile and cannot distinguish between truth and lie.
This is one virtual world of poetry and even if it may never have existed, it
is a place where Irish poems and their readers in a new century must figure
out their responsibilities. As seen in Carson and the other poets discussed
in this book, the means of figuring out an approach both to history and
a changing contemporary society has led to a writing which is by turns
oblique, metaphoric, allegorical and opaque. The reader of such poetry must
recognise metaphor and simile but not make the Platonic mistake that in
fictional worlds truths might as well be lies.

NOTES
1 Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), pp. 77-8.
2 Michael Longley, 'Ceasefire', in The Ghost Orchid (London: Cape, 1995), p. 39.

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3 For further historical background on these and other events related here,
see Terence Brown, Ireland: a Social and Cultural History, 1922-1985 2nd
edn. (London: Fontana, 1985); R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989); JJ. Lee, Ireland, lyiz-iySy. Politics and
Society (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
4 Samuel Beckett to Alec Reid, quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The
Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), pp. 304 and 763.
5 Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 132.
6 John Hewitt, 'Once Alien Here' in The Collected Poems ofJohn Hewitt ed. Frank
Ormsby (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1991), p. 20.
7 Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber,
1988), p. 104.
8 Anthony Cronin, Dead as Doornails: Bohemian Dublin in the Fifties and Sixties
(Oxford University Press, 1976).
9 Patrick Kavanagh, 'The Parish and the Universe', Collected Pruse (London:
MacGibbon and Kee, 1967), pp. 282-3.
10 Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1964), p. 136.
11 Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time
(Manchester: Carcanet), pp. 99-100.
12 Padraic Fallon, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), p. 71.
13 John Montague, Selected Poems (Winston Salem: Wake Forest University Press,
1982), p. 62. The allusion is to Yeats's 'September 1913': 'Romantic Ireland's dead
and gone / It's with O'Leary in the grave'.
14 See Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, 'Why I Choose to Write in Irish', The New York Times
Book Review, January 8, 1995, p. 27.
15 Thomas Kinsella, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), p. 78.
16 Kinsella, Collected Poems, p. 82.
17 Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996).
18 I am adapting a remark from Louis MacNeice, in The Poetry ofW.B. Yeats (1941)
(London: Faber and Faber, 1967), p. 23: 'Critics often tend to write as if a condi-
tion were the same thing as a cause'.
19 Derek Mahon, 'Poetry in Northern Ireland', Twentieth Century Studies 4
(Nov. 1970), pp. 92-3.
20 Michael Longley, 'The Fire in the Window: A Response to the Paintings of David
Crone', in David Crone: Paintings 1963-1999, ed. S.B. Kennedy (Dublin: Four
Courts Press, 1999), p. 7.
21 Frank Ormsby, ed., A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles
(Belfast: Blackstaff, 1992), pp. 112-16. The poems are 'Counting the Dead on
the Radio, 1972' (McCarthy), 'After Derry, 30 January 1972' (Deane), 'Casualty'
(Heaney). See also the poem that leads in to this selection, Eamon Grennan's
powerful 'Soul Music: The Derry Air.'
22 Derry Journal (Bloody Sunday Commemorative Issue, 1 Feb. 1997).
23 Muldoon is quoted by Clair Wills, in Reading Paul Muldoon (Newcastle:
Bloodaxe, 1998), p. 38.
24 Paul Muldoon, New Weather, 2nd edn. (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 47.
25 Dennis O'Driscoll, 'Foreign Relations: Irish and International Poetry', Troubled
Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings (Loughcrew: Gallery, 2001),
p. 84.

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MATTHEW CAMPBELL

2.6 Sean 6 Riordain, 'Banfhile' ('Woman Poet'), Tar Eis Mo Bhdis, p. 45.
27 Eavan Boland, 'Outside History' in Object Lessons: The Life of the Poet and the
Woman in Our Time (Manchester: Carcanet, 1995), p. 143.
28 Eavan Boland, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1995), p. 151.
29 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Pharaoh's Daughter (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1990), pp. 134-
5; trans. John Montague.
30 Caitriona O'Reilly, The Nowhere Birds (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2001), p. 12.
31 Carson, The Twelfth of Never (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1998), p. 13.

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From Irish mode to modernisation:


the poetry of Austin Clarke

i
It is almost a truism of Irish literary history that the work of Austin Clarke
(1896-1973), one of the Irish poets of the greatest range and achievement
since Yeats, has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Somehow it still hov-
ers both in and out of the canon, frequently more honoured in the breach of
oversight than in the observance of university syllabuses, summer schools,
anthologies and bookshop poetry sections. Clarke was excluded by Yeats
from his Faber Book of Modern Verse in 1936; but while he was restored
in most anthologies between The Oxford Book of Irish Verse in 1958 and
Patrick Crotty's Modern Irish Poetry of 1995, it was still possible for Yeats's
snub to be repeated half a century later in (or out of) Paul Muldoon's Faber
Book of Modern Irish Poetry (1986). Clarke remains in print, yet precari-
ously; a Selected Poems edited by Hugh Maxton, which was published in
1991, is still available, but the only Collected is the 1974 edition prepared
by Liam Miller of Dolmen Press with the poet himself.1 The contrast with,
say, Patrick Kavanagh (for whom complete and selected poems are currently,
and recently, in print), is marked.
In critical terms the story is similar. In the 1950s, it took an English critic,
Donald Davie, then teaching at Trinity College Dublin, to alert the Irish
literary world to the importance of the poetry Clarke had begun publishing
in 1955, after a seventeen-year silence. The seconding of Davie's judgement
was soon followed by Clarke's brief elevation following Flight to Africa
(1963), his most varied single collection, and the remarkable late masterpiece,
Mnemosyne Lay in Dust (1966). But the 1960s were to be the highpoint of
Clarke's reputation. Although critical attention traditionally wanes after a
poet's death, before reviving, there is still little sign of it picking up again in
Clarke's case. He is dutifully accorded his place in literary histories, and some
critics - W.J. McCormack, Terence Brown and Neil Corcoran - have written
very finely about him indeed, in essay form.2 But although Susan Halpern

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(1974), Craig Tapping (1981) and Maurice Harmon (1989) have all offered
book-length studies of the oeuvre, all are currently out of print. Nor has there
as yet been a biography, or any study of Clarke informed by contemporary
developments in literary criticism. Most revealing of all, several notable Irish
critics of modern poetry, Declan Kiberd, Seamus Deane and Edna Longley
among them, have avoided discussing Clarke in any but a cursory manner.3
Admittedly, Clarke has been named as an important forebear by Thomas
Kinsella who, like Maxton, has edited his poetry. But such a claim is almost
unique, and the general impression is of a writer's writer; skilful, prolific, of
occasional power, but patchy and narrowly parochial, a poet whose crabbed
style and not-so-lightly-worn learning make him something of a mid-century
curio.
As I have argued elsewhere, Clarke's reputation has suffered from the po-
larisation of Irish culture which set in in earnest around the time of his death
and is only now starting to weaken.4 Thus, Clarke's critique of the 'Ill-fare
state' and resolutely demythologising tendency has rankled with, or seemed
irrelevant to, those nationalist-inclined critics and poets who spent the 1970s
and 1980s agonising over myth and Irish identity. Conversely, the prospect
of upsetting this group was not sufficiently tempting for those of an opposed
persuasion to overcome their dislike of Clarke's penchant for foreground-
ing the constructedness of the poem as literary artefact.5 Unconscriptable,
he was ignored by both camps. Moreover, his anomalous place in literary
history had made such a critical failure relatively easy. Refusing to acknowl-
edge modernism until late in his career, the radical elements of Clarke's poetic
and ideology were for long occluded. As a result he had been cast by Samuel
Beckett in 1934 as one of those offering 'segment after segment of cut-and-
dried sanctity and loveliness',6 the whipping-boy-in-chief of the cosmopoli-
tan strain of Irish modernism.7 Yet his dense and highly-wrought style always
seemed artificial and laboured when set against the realist vernacular style
championed by Kavanagh and more or less dominant in Irish poetry since the
1960s. Ironically, as Crotty and Maxton have noted, Clarke is best regarded
as an Irish example of a neglected strain of modernism, that which attached
itself to a specific region or nation, which in Britain included Basil Bunting
and Hugh MacDiarmid, and in the USA William Carlos Williams; a hy-
brid writing which articulated the tensions between modernism and realism,
region (or nation) and the transnational space of the revolution of the word.

II
Austin Clarke was born in Dublin in 1896, of a lower-middle-class family.
After a conventional Roman Catholic upbringing and schooling, he went

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to study at University College Dublin (UCD) in 1913. Here he encountered


the force which, together with religion, was to shape him most strongly,
that of the Literary Revival. UCD was home to many of the intellectuals
behind the Revival, among them Douglas Hyde, Thomas MacDonagh and
George Sigerson, and Clarke soon came under their influence. The activity
of some of these figures was, famously, not confined to a purely cultural
nationalism. In 1916, the year Clarke graduated, the Easter Rising took
place, with MacDonagh as one of its leaders. Thus it came about that the
man who was to have supervised Clarke's MA was executed by the British
Army just two weeks later, on 6 May 1916, and Clarke appointed to take
his place, as an assistant lecturer in English, in 1917. Yet despite his own
Republicanism, Clarke played no part in the events of 1916-22, and his
ambivalence, even guilt, at the outcome of the Rising may be imagined. In
the year of his appointment, however, his first book, The Vengeance ofFionn,
had appeared to considerable acclaim. A literary career beckoned, and Fionn
was followed at no great distance by two more long poems, The Fires of Baal
(1921) and The Sword of the West (1923).
These three early works were in the epic mythological manner of Samuel
Ferguson, Herbert Trench and the early W.B. Yeats, and they established
Clarke's reputation as one of the leading writers of the newly-independent
Free State. Together with F.R. Higgins, Padraic Fallon and other poets of
his own generation, Clarke was in the 1920s busily forging a national po-
etry which owed much to what MacDonagh in Literature in Ireland (1916)
had dubbed the 'Irish mode', a means by which Irish poets might avoid be-
coming 'John Bull's Other Rhymers'.8 Technically, this meant devising ways
by which the unique particularity of traditional Gaelic Irish verse patterns
and Hiberno-Irish speech could be foregrounded in English verse by Irish
poets. Yet from its inception this project rested on a contradiction; that,
given the identification of language with national essence, and the lack of
first language fluency in Irish among the intelligentsia, the 'Irish mode' was a
compromise. Given the climate of national self-definition, even purification,
after Independence, the ideological presuppositions of the project were well
summed up in Daniel Corkery's prescriptions, offered in Synge and Anglo-
Irish Literature (1931), for a new Irish literature. Extending the ideas of
MacDonagh, Corkery laid down a literary litmus test according to which
the true Irishness of Irish literature should be judged according to the degree
to which it reflected '(1) The Religious Consciousness of the People; (2) Irish
Nationalism; and (3) The Land'.9 Corkery's prescriptions were shaped by the
conservative nature of the new state, even as they acted to shape its policies,
which included approved literary representations. In this sense neo-Revivalist
poets were not merely influenced by official ideology; the official ideology

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was a form of poetry, an aestheticised mode of the anti-British struggle based


on an inversion of colonial discourses, one which tended to mirror the con-
cerns of its Other. To outsiders, the idealisation of the rural and the peasantry
by the neo-Revivalists seems similar to, if not indistinguishable, from, that
of older Revivalists; yet the similarity was glossed over by opposing what
was deemed to be a 'masculine' Gaelic 'hardness' to their predecessors' ef-
feminate Celtic 'softness'. Pre-eminent among these was W.B. Yeats, whose
newly plain and rugged style had to be overlooked for the argument to make
sense.
This revamped ruralist ideal, suitably Catholicised and purged of its
English and continental taints, played a large role in the process of state
formation, for it offered 'essentially a literary trope' as 'a cornerstone
for cultural and economic policy', and it swiftly became complicit with
the essentialist ideologies used by the Catholic-Nationalist middle-classes
to dominate the post-Partition State.10 In this way, the 'Irish mode',
an interim tactic for asserting literary-cultural identity, became a long-
term strategy which embodied literary-cultural schism (between Anglo-Irish
Protestant and Catholic authors, and between monoglot English and bilin-
gual Gaelic/English speakers). Whereas Revival poetry had previously traf-
ficked and toyed with the innovations of international modernism, from
the early 1920s it would be bound to conservative forms and themes; and
its lachrymose, shamrock-tinted Georgianism was precisely what Kavanagh
would react against so violently in The Great Hunger (1941). Ironically
for an early form of cultural decolonisation, the 'Irish mode' was wedded
to a State and a Church whose illiberalism, by the late 1920s, was to be
emblematised in the flight abroad of many of its leading writers.
In this fraught atmosphere, Clarke's contribution to the cultural recon-
struction project was both considerable and remarkably undogmatic. He
soon abandoned his early epic pretensions, and in The Cattledrive of Con-
naught (1925) and Pilgrimage and Other Poems (1929) displayed an expres-
sively complex lyric style. Admittedly, the verse largely celebrated a revamped
version of the Irish West beloved of the first phase Revival writers, as well
as his fellow neo-Revivalists; in it, a congeries of green islands, grey skies
and fiery sunsets are set to a tin-whistle soundtrack, its landscapes populated
by obliging peasant girls, hard-drinking fishermen, merry cattle-drovers and
sage turf-cutters. It is poetry at once mildly risque and hopelessly in thrall to
'buckleppery', to use the term with which Kavanagh dismissed F.R. Higgins.
Nevertheless, Clarke's work in this manner was always a cut above that of
his contemporaries, technically impressive in the way it manages to replicate
in English the complex assonantal and consonantal alliteration and rhyme
schemes of Irish verse. As Clarke put it in his note to Pilgrimage:

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Assonance, more elaborate in Gaelic than in Spanish poetry, takes the clapper
from the bell of rhyme. In simple patterns, the tonic word at the end of the line
is supported by a vowel-rhyme in the middle of the next line. Unfortunately
the internal patterns of assonance and consonance are so intricate that they
can only be suggested in another language.
The natural lack of double rhymes in English leads to an avoidance of words
of more than one syllable at the end of the lyric line, except in blank alternation
with rhyme. A movement constant in Continental languages is absent. But by
cross-rhymes or vowel-rhyming, separately, one or more syllables of longer
words, on or off accent, the difficulty may be turned: lovely and neglected
words are advanced to the tonic place and divide their echoes.
(Collected Poems, 547 n.)

Internal rhymes and advancement to the 'tonic place' (deibhde rhyme) fea-
ture, for example, in 'The Scholar'.

Summer delights the scholar


With knowledge and reason.
Who is happy in hedgerow
Or meadow as he is?
Paying no dues to the parish,
He argues in logic
And has no care of cattle
But a satchel and stick. [. . .]
But in winter by the big fires,
The ignorant hear his fiddle,
And he battles on the chessboard
As the land lord bids him.

Here, to deal with the internal rhymes first, the short 'o' sound of 'scholar'
in line 1 raises that of 'knowledge' in line 2, which becomes the long 'ow' in
'hedgerow' in line 3 (a word which also reverses the 'ow' and 'edge' phonemes
of 'knowledge'). 'Reason', in the 'tonic place' at the end of line 2, also looks
ahead to a sight rhyme with the 'ea' of 'meadow' in line 4, although by that
point assonantal double rhyme has been achieved between 'hedgerow' and
'meadow'. The end-rhyming of the 'o' of 'scholar' with the 'ow' sound of
'hedgerow' and the 'eas' sound of 'reason' with 'is' in the tonic position at the
end of line 4, form both pararhyme and deibhde rhyme (that is, the rhyme
sound is on the stress but out of tonic position in the first item of the pair
making the rhyme). This is more straightforward, because simpler, in the
pararhyme 'logic'/'stick' in the second verse (technically speaking, a trochee
half-rhyming with an iamb). The aim - to fruitfully disrupt readers used
to the standard rhyme of English tradition - is achieved wittily, musically

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and with only the mildest complication of syntax. Overall, Clarke's aim of
forging in English a new mode which incorporates Irish Gaelic poetic modes
is triumphantly fulfilled.
The Scholar' is also representative in making play with Clarke's name
('clerk' and 'scholar' being covered by the same Irish word). Knowing this,
we can see how, by its close, the poem also seems to be dramatising an op-
position between the freedom-loving scholar/Clarke and the demands of the
'land lord'. Reaction against sentimentalised forms of the 'Irish mode', and
an awareness of some of the ideological contradictions involved in writing
essentialist Irishness in English begin to surface in the poetry at this time. The
opposition between the 'scholar' and the 'ignorant' in the new Ireland was
becoming increasingly evident. A growing dissatisfaction with the darkening
cultural climate can be seen in Clarke's use - although 'creation' would be
more accurate - of two historical eras. These alternative Irelands differed
from the Revival Ireland of myth and legend in being, technically at least,
properly historical, but were sufficiently distant and indefinite to allow the
imagination free rein - namely, the Celto-Romanesque eighth, ninth and
tenth centuries (when, as Clarke put it, 'we almost had a religion of our
own'), and the era of the Anglo-Norman earldoms of the fifteenth. The first
of these in particular lent itself to juxtaposition with the repressive present
in a manner both satiric and celebratory. In such settings Clarke used sub-
versive female figures - Maeve and Gormlai, a speir-bhednn or beautiful
woman, 'The young woman of Beare' - and attributed to them a pride and
sexual confidence unknown in Revival writing. These works parallel Yeats's
contemporary mythologising of the eighteenth century ascendancy and cel-
ebration of sexual power in works such as the Crazy Jane sequence; but it
is Clarke's historical originality which is most striking, and it serves as a
reminder of the error of Yeats-centric criticism in discussing his work purely
in terms of an agonistic struggle with the older writer.
The poems before Night and Morning (1938) are heavily accented (al-
though in ways distinct from the English tradition) and rhythmically forceful.
Lexically they are distinguished by unusual choices of verb, qualification of
Yeatsian verbal modifiers, and a syntactic complexity which is not merely ad-
ditive, paratactic rather than hypotactic. Indeed, syntax is frequently twisted
to make a poem less immediately intelligible when this accords with subject,
as in the labyrinthine 'Secrecy' - a far cry from the discursive simplicity of
neo-Revival lyrics. These qualities can be seen in thefirstverse of 'Pilgrimage':

When the far south glittered


Behind grey beaded plains,
And cloudier ships were bitted

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Along the pale waves,


The showery breeze - that plies
A mile from Ara - stood
And took our boat on sand:
There by dim wells women tied
A wish on thorn, while rainfall
Was quiet as the turning of books
In the holy schools at dawn.

The third and fourth lines notably set the unusual and physically force-
ful Clarkeian verb ('bitted') against Revival vagueness ('cloudier', 'pale'),
earthing the latter in the observed landscapes of the poet's travels. Likewise,
the deliberately abrupt interjection of the fifth and sixth lines disrupts the
rhythm before it can settle. At the very least, Clarke's use of the 'Irish mode'
in stylistic terms involves establishing an interplay of styles in which Revival
and neo-Revival effects are constantly undermined.
Clarke's modification of neo-Revivalism was the result of his understand-
ing of its limitations, but also of the vicissitudes of his own life. Soon after
his striking poetic debut, he had fallen foul of his own religious scruple,
and then of those of the authorities of the new state. In 1919, during the
Anglo-Irish War, he had suffered a nervous breakdown, during the course
of which he was hospitalised for almost a year in St Patrick's Hospital in
Dublin. This harrowing cure is the subject of Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, a
work which did not appear until 1966, and which gives few clues as to the
origin of Clarke's collapse. Other writings hint at explanations, however,
and in his second volume of autobiography, Penny in the Clouds (1968),
Clarke would note that 'there is no cure for the folly of youth or the dire
consequences of overindulgence in continence'. The almost Wildean bon mot
cannot conceal the deeply personal, even anguished, tone, and indicates a
clash between radical social vision, sensual instinct and religious piety of a
kind familiar from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Unlike
Joyce, it would be many years before Clarke recovered; indeed, Mnemosyne
is arguably the form his recovery took. As a result, when Clarke married
the feminist and writer Geraldine Cummins in a secular ceremony in 1921,
the marriage remained unconsummated, and was broken off after only two
weeks. The disaster was compounded soon after when UCD refused to renew
his contract, apparently because he had married in a registry office rather
than a church.
Such facts serve as reminders of the complex fusion of national, religious
and sexual trauma which shaped Clarke's poetic identity, the sense in which
the stable identity of the young neo-Revival writer was shattered and had to
be rebuilt. They also remind us that behind the apparantly archaic trappings

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of some of the poetry lies a very modern sense of betrayal and impotence to
which it often obliquely attests. In Clarke's work, public and private spir-
itual, political and sexual narratives twist together in an overdetermined
manner, and the difficulties of their representation hints at (without ever
wholly explaining) the delay with which he tackled certain subjects as well
as the compression and difficulty of his style. Rather than mere costume
drama, Clarke's version of the 'Irish mode' is best seen as a continuation of
the Utopian impulse of the Revival in the face of its decline into whimsy, rep-
etition and ethnic exclusivity. In this process, the loss of a career in academia
may have been no bad thing. Forced to spend the nextfifteenyears as a liter-
ary journalist in London, he could view what was happening at home with
some detachment. In an article entitled 'Love in Irish Poetry and Drama',
published in October 1932, considering the effects of censorship, Clarke re-
marked on how the 'gloomy, self-righteous Gaels of today' had adversely
affected recent Irish writing, attacking a tradition of 'temptation and love-
fear'.11 Similarly, the origin of the 1950s Satires can be detected in his poetic
response at this time; in 'Penal Law' (with its pun on 'penile'), for example,
political and sexual freedom are indissoluble, just as they will be in the later
poems:

Burn Ovid with the rest. Lovers will find


A hedge-school for themselves and learn by heart
All that the clergy banish from the mind,
When hands are joined and head bows in the dark.
{Collected Poems, 189)

The ironies in this short piece are multiple and profound. Ovid was banished
from Rome (now centre of the Roman Catholic Church) for writing an
'improper' love poem ('Ars amatoria'), and we also know that 'Penal Law'
was written just after 'Love in Irish Poetry and Drama', at the time of the
Nazi book-burnings of January 1933. While book-burning did not occur, on
any scale at least, in Ireland, censorship had something of the same effect.
Aided by the Catholic Truth Society, bookshops and libraries were regularly
vetted. Much contemporary literature, and a great deal of past literature was
prohibited (The Decameron went the way of Aldous Huxley, and both kept
company with American pulp titles such as Hot Dames on Cold Slabs).IZ
Films, radio music, dance styles and fashions were also subject to pulpit
denunciations, or to more direct elimination. Worst of all, censorship was
to prove deeply demoralising to the nation, even intellectually infantilising
(library holdings could be reduced to what Terence Brown has called 'an Irish
stew of imported westerns, sloppy romances, blood-and-murders bearing the
nihil obstat of fifty-two vigilantes').13

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Clarke's poem gains its force by juxtaposing the present with the past;
'hedge-schools', once organised by the Church in the teeth of Penal attacks
on Gaelic culture are outrageously updated as schools of love held in defiance
of the Church, which has swapped its former liberatory role for a repressive
one. What is 'learnt by heart' by lovers is not the predetermined responses
of the Mass, but the free expression of desire; and so the last line gives us
the images of hands joined in passion rather than prayer and heads bowed,
not in prayer or in 'the dark' of the confessional, but to kiss. Amor vincit
omnia (love conquers all), maybe, yet it does so framed by a set of rending
historical ironies. Clarke himself, however, was by no means immune to
censorship or its effects, either by Yeats or the State. Two novels written
not long afterwards, The Bright Temptation (1932) and The Singing Men
at Cashel (1936), had already been banned when he returned to Ireland in
1937 with his family (he had remarried, happily this time, in 1930). Perhaps
predictably there was another nervous breakdown, informed by the spiritual
crisis charted in the anguished personal lyrics of Night and Morning. Again,
recovery followed; but it would be seventeen years before Clarke published
poetry again.

Ill
Thomas Kinsella has noted that 'in those flat years at the beginning of the
nineteenfifties,depressed so thoroughly that one scarcely noted it, the uneasy
silence of Austin Clarke added a certain emphasis'.14 Such a silence was, of
course, the norm rather than the exception for many Irish poets of the time.15
Wartime neutrality had intensified the isolation of the 1930s and peace did
not end it; unlike any other western nation, the Republic was stagnating
in the mid-1950s, losing population at a rate which seemed to threaten its
very existence. Clarke's reinvention of himself as a poet-critic with the pub-
lication of Ancient Lights in 1955 was precipitated by this crisis. As we
have seen, this remaking had been anticipated. 'Martha Blake' in Night
and Morning, for example, had had a contemporary setting and was left
open for future development. This analysis of the faith of a devout spin-
ster (albeit one whose name emblematically combines self-abasing Biblical
character and assertive visionary poet), showed a woman so obsessed with
ritual that she remains 'ignorant' of 'The hidden grace that people/Hurrying
to business/Look after in the street' (Collected Poems, p. 185), and it was
precisely to such 'business' that Clarke addressed his post-1955 poetry; as if
emphasising the continuity and difference between the phases of his writing,
'Martha Blake at fifty-one' reappears in more realistic detail in Flight to
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'Ancient lights' is the legal right to keep unobstructed windows of long


provenance. It symbolises for Clarke the right to political, moral and spiri-
tual light, a right he continues to seek, with some softening of satiric energy,
in Too Great a Vine (1957) and The Horse-Raters (i960). All three col-
lections were pamphlet-length and published by Clarke's own Bridge Press.
Each contained short 'satires', plus a longer poem. These long pieces contain
autobiographical material and general meditation - as opposed to public par-
ticular interventions - in which relationships between a personal past and
present are explored. 'Ancient Lights' itself is a celebration of escape from
childhood fears, release occurring in remembrance of an epiphanic moment
when Clarke had scared away a hawk clutching a sparrow. This memory
is matched by a baptismal downpour in the present which washes the city
clean as the sun breaks out. 'The Loss of Strength' in Too Great a Vine is
more ambitious, moving as it does from Clarke's rueful acceptance of age to
the taming of the Shannon by the hydroelectric plant at Ardnachrusha. For
Clarke the plant represents a 'monk-like' curtailment of the 'natural flow'
of legendary stories linked to the river and of sexual expression, reducing
the current of imagination and life to 'a piddle and blank wall' (Collected
Poems, 214). The dam also symbolises the Irish Church, and the poem glosses
the collection's title: 'Too great a vine, they say, can sour/The best of clay'
(216).
The theme of the present consuming the past informs The Horse-Eaters'
'The Hippophagi' yet more menacingly. Like the others, this poem recapit-
ulates Clarke's own past, exploring the formation of subjectivity through a
fusion of religious discourse and the instinctual, sensual drives of the child,
juxtaposing both with a degraded present. The poem's central symbol for
modern loss is the replacement of horses by the internal combustion engine,
manifested in the new trade of exporting the animals to be 'Cut up, roast, by
French and Belgian' (Collected Poems, 234). It is a complaint which, in iso-
lation, might seem a fogeyish incomprehension of modernity. Yet the poem
is precisely a critique of the conjunction of sentimental religion and amoral
technology which is the Irish present, and in which Church and State collude.
More broadly, past repression has produced the vulnerable subject which ac-
cepts an unholy and inhumane compact between science and mystificatory
religion, which in turn threatens nuclear annihilation ('Man above/His own
Jehovah . . . Death-dealing tons can fly alone;/Decimals known') (233).
The eating of horses thus becomes synonymous with the devouring of our
creaturely selves, a denial of the body; autophagy, or self-cannibalism, pre-
pares the way for destruction. And far from being peripheral in the modern
world, poetry - the 'horse-play' of children and of the imagination - is cru-
cial to preventing annihilation.16 In a bleak final stanza Clarke entertains

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the notion that the Mind, or self-awareness, supposed to distinguish human


beings from animals, may after all be a 'void' (235). The technological
overriding of our mortal condition might, paradoxically, ensure our extinc-
tion as a species. It is these broader perspectives which contextualise Clarke
the 'local complainer' of the short satires and their specific abuses. Like the
longer poems, these demand respect for the complexities of Irish history and
observance of the duties which that past should be able to expect of the
present. Through them, they insist on the inseparability of Irish experience
from that of the rest of world.
Critics have been arguing about exactly how satirical the satires are since
they first appeared. As Terence Brown claims, the importance of sexuality to
Clarke's work lay in the fact that it provided him, in the potential for grotes-
querie inherent in the act, with a natural route - via deflation and mockery -
to a humane form of satire17. Generically, Clarke hovers between the milder
Horatian and snarling Juvenalian varieties, and pointedly rejects the associ-
ation of satire with misogyny which runs from Juvenal's Sixth Satire through
Swift and Pope to Eliot and the present. Although some have complained
about the lack of a 'killer instinct', the point lies in their redefinition of the
genre, for simply to invert the terms in which State and Church represent
themselves would be to remain within the grip of their reactionary mind-set.
The flexibility of approach which results makes for considerable variety of
tone and theme, even if the longer poems are left out of consideration. So,
the inability to protest at officialdom's refusal to erect a monument to the
patriot Wolfe Tone because he was a Protestant is ironically self-reproachful:
'What may we do but rattle his chains . . . We cannot blow his statue up?'
(Collected Poems, 208). Similarly, the belated discovery by the Church of
liberation theology is mocked in 'Inscription for a Headstone', which notes
its past attacks on James Larkin, union leader and socialist, at a time when
fear of the poor 'harden[ed]', rather than 'soften[ed]', the clerical 'heart'
(Collected Poems, 202). To fight for the dispossessed is, for Clarke, to write
'our holiest page', but the Church has arrived on this particular scene of
battle far too late to be taken seriously, unless it is prepared to show far
more humility than hitherto.
Clarke would continue to write satires for the rest of his life, and in 'The
Subjection of Women' from The Echo at Coole (1968), he listed the out-
standing women whom a male establishment had written out of Irish his-
tory. The poem underlines the fact that his sharpest attacks were aimed
at those who abused marginal social groups - Protestants, women and the
working class - and those vulnerable in even more fundamental ways; the
poor and unemployed, the aged and children. 'Three Poems about Children'
was occasioned by the words of a local bishop on the death of thirty-five

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children in afirein a Church-run (and fatally mismanaged) orphanage: 'Dear


little angels, now before God in heaven, they were taken away before the
gold of their innocence had been tarnished by the soil of this world'.18
The poem notes that the children are not orphans - they were separated
by the Church at birth from their unmarried mothers - before moving to
its scathing indictment: 'Cast-iron step and railing/Could but prolong the
wailing... flame-wrapped babes are spared/Our lifetime of temptation/Leap,
mind, in consolation . . . Those children, charred in Cavan/Passed straight
through Hell to Heaven' (Collected Poems, 197) The final lines, as Hugh
Maxton claims, 'must surely count as Clarke's most effective use of his dis-
tinctive rhyme patterns' (Selected Poems, 228n).
In its controlled outrage 'Three Poems about Children' serves as a reminder
that Clarke's best satires have a Brechtian bite and slyness which the longer
poems forego. But as in 'The Hippophagi' (in which it is the betrayal of the
horses and their slaughter by proxy which crystallises national hypocrisy),
it is the lack of self-awareness, the ability to admit wrongdoing, which is
deemed particularly reprehensible. In this sense the poems focus on the pe-
culiarly modern conflict of representations, of justice (or injustice) being seen
to be done, as well as of the actual deeds involved. 'Mother and Child' is
another case in point, published as it was in 1954 after the Church's declara-
tion that the year was to be devoted to the Virgin Mary, and the subsequent
issue of a commemorative stamp by Post Eireann:
Obedient keys rattled in locks,
Bottles in old dispensaries
Were shaken and the ballot boxes
Hid politicians on their knees
When pity showed us what we are.
'Why should we care', votes cried, 'for child
Or mother? Common help is harmful
And state-control must starve the soul.'
One doctor spoke out. Bishops mitred.
But now our caution has been mended,
The side-door open, bill amended,
We profit from God's love and pity,
Sampling the world with good example.
Before you damp it with your spit,
Respect our newest postage stamp.
(Collected Poems, 202)

Despite the date of its appearance, the poem initially refers to the attempt
made in 1951 by the radical health minister of a coalition government,
Dr Noel Browne, to introduce a Mother and Child Bill. Browne's bill was

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intended to give help to poor nursing mothers, but had been denounced as
'socialistic' by both the Church and the medical profession for grossly self-
interested reasons - fear, respectively, of loss of social control and of medical
fees. Browne's cabinet colleagues had abandoned him at this point and he
was forced to resign. But the poem is not simply lamenting Browne's fate.
It refers also to the fact that when the Fianna Fail party - who had called
for Browne's head - came to power in 1953, they passed legislation almost
identical to his.
Clarke's target, then, is not just the hypocritical opposition to, or aban-
donment of, Noel Browne; it is, rather, the general refusal to admit their
earlier error by those involved. The pun on 'mitred' - the bishops 'might'
have done differently - suggests, as a device, the fusion of Church and State
power, as God's 'love' and 'pity' are subordinated to financial and spiri-
tual 'profit'. Though seemingly simply, a topical linkage of past and present,
'Mother and Child' actually concerns the representation of power which
underlies this specific abuse. Clarke is angered because democracy's 'ballot
boxes' are being made to serve as a cover for the politics of the side-door -
privileged access and patriarchal string-pulling. He takes the stamp as a
symbol of the State's subservience to the bishops and doctors; it embodies
the duplicity which tries to blur the gap between independence ideal ('to
cherish each member of the nation equally') and current actuality. In doing
so, the poem mimics the blend of brazenness and secrecy it attacks by being
itself both belated and immediate, circumspect and offensive, abstract and
vulgar (these qualities summed up in the final 'pity'/'spit' rhyme). Taken to-
gether, then, these satires are more than the sum of their parts, transcending
the 'occasional' category as individual instances of deprivation, neglect and
brutality accumulate into a wider attack on power. In their blend of personal
and political, the three satires collections, like Flight to Africa (which shares
their structure), point towards the final imaginative release of Mnemosyne
and the long poems of Clarke's last years.

IV
It is usual to relate Mnemosyne Lay in Dust to the confessional poetry of
the time, initiated by W.R. Snodgrass's The Heart's Needle (1959), and pop-
ularised by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman. Certainly, the
poem has its therapeutic dimension, taking as it does the form of a ven-
triloquised, confessional cure. But it is also the product of Irish circum-
stances, the rapid modernisation of the years after 1959 in which Sean Lemass
was Taoiseach, and the reforms to the Catholic Church brought about by
the Vatican II Council of 1963-65. Equally crucially, 1966 was the fiftieth

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anniversary of the Easter Rising and was marked with much pomp and cere-
mony. The appearance, at the ceremonies in the Gaelic Athletic Association's
stadium Croke Park, of the blind and aged President De Valera beside the
technocrat Lemass provided a stark contrast of old and new. In publishing
Mnemosyne in the same year Clarke set his own old and younger selves to-
gether with something of the same effect of historical irony, inscribing his
personal collapse in 1919 within the national struggle for freedom. Torment
and insurrection collide, and an occluded history is retrieved from the dust
of oblivion in a work whose overdetermined narrative is written on the body
of its protagonist, Maurice Devane, in the most graphic manner. In keeping
with the classicizing of Clarke's later poetry, this movement from loss to re-
covery of self is conducted under the aegis of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess
of memory and the mother of the Muses.
The poem, which is in eighteen parts, opens with Maurice entering the
asylum in mortal 'terror', believing that 'Void' - the key concluding word in
'The Hippophagi' - 'would draw his spirit/Unself him' (Collected Poems,
p. 327). Here he is subjected to a brutal, disorienting regime, violently un-
dressed and 'plunged/Into a steaming bath', 'half-suffocated' by 'assailants
gesticulating' as if in 'A Keystone reel gone crazier' (not just more agitated
and absurd than a Keystone Cops movie, but a more-than-Keystone world
'reeling', even becoming the 'real') (p. 328). Visions, nightmares, terror of
other inmates, bedwetting, force-feeding and petty beatings follow. Maurice's
experiences are rendered with the full resources of Clarke's late style, from
a jostling, compressed, assonantal verse in part II to revulsion and rep-
etition in part IV, from the spine-tingling horrors of part VIII (this is
the poem 'Summer Lightning' from Night and Morning, a sign of how
long Clarke had wrestled with his subject) to the meditative lyricism of
part III:
. . . Drugged in the dark, delirious,
In vision Maurice saw, heard, struggle
Of men and women, shouting groans.
In an accident at Westland Row,
Two locomotives with mangle of wheel-spokes,
Colliding: [. . .]
. . . Weakening, he lay flat. Appetite
Had gone. The beef or mutton, potatoes
And cabbage - he turned from the thick slices
Of meat, the greasy rings of gravy.
Knife had been blunted, fork was thick
And every plate was getting bigger.
His stomach closed: always beef or mutton,

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Potatoes, cabbage, turnips. Mind spewed,


Only in dreams was gluttonous.
. . . Napoleon took his glittering vault
To be a looking-glass.
Lord Mitchell, pale and suffering,
Fell to the ground in halves.
The cells were filling. Christopher
O'Brien, strapped in pain,
For all the rage of syphilis
Had millions in his brain. [. . .]
Looking down from bars
With mournful eye
Maurice could see them beckoning,
Some pointed, signed.
Waving their arms and hands,
They wandered. Why
Should they pretend they did not see him
Lost to mind?
(pp. 328; 333; 190, 338; 331)

The effect of the range of styles is simultaneously to enclose us in Maurice's


tactile experience of confinement and to attenuate a sense of identity through
the errant, 'wandering'/wondering, 'beyond the Pale' quality of his thought.
We are spared little of his anguish, delusions, self-abasement, blank misery
and (literal) self-dissolution.
Neil Corcoran has pointed out that, 'A great many substances flow from
[Maurice] in the early parts of the poem', suggesting the crumbling of
the bounds of selfhood, as Clarke hints at both the ostensible causes for
Maurice's fast - a hunger strike against himself paralleling that of the Sinn
Fein prisoners held by the British in 1919 - and the psychic blockages that
lie behind it.19 These are traced in dream imagery and wordplay, such as that
on 'prick' and 'erections' in part V:
. . . [he] knew they were the holy ictyphalli
Curled hair for bushwood, bark or skin
Heavily veined. He worshipped, a tiny satyr,
Mere prick beneath those vast erections.
(P- 333)
Maurice, in fact, constructs a mythic dream-world of considerable beauty
as compensation for the real world he has abandoned, out of guilt at his
non-involvement in the independence struggle and his thwarted sexual

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desires. Having heard the warders talk of a gate, garden and fountain, he
elaborates on them. Thus, in part V, he is harassed in a dream by a 'silent
form' he calls 'The Watcher', who '[casts] the shadow of a policeman'. The
mythic 'release' from his all too well-policed libido abruptly takes oriental,
fantastic shape:
Joyously through a gateway, came a running
Of little Jewish boys, their faces pale
As ivory or jasmine, from Lebanon
To Eden. Garlanded, caressing,
Little girls ran with skip and leap . . .
Love
Fathered him with their happiness.
(P- 334)
In reality, as the vision reveals when it recurs in part IX, the gate and
'the primal Garden' are, punningly, as 'guarded' as Eden, the 'leaping' of the
children echoing the name of 'tall, handsome, tweeded Dr. Leeper'. 'Pale',
too, is a loaded word, hinting at possible historical and psychological mean-
ings of confinement and colonial encroachment. Like Maurice's fantasies of
fighting for Ireland as a 'Daring Republican', these lead to nothing but the
doctor's reiterated appeal to him to ' "Think . . . Think" '. Nevertheless, in
the 'top-room' of a very Yeatsian tower inside the hospital Maurice still finds
himself 'stumbling/Where Mnemosyne lay in dust' (p. 334). Release, from
delusion, self-loss and destructive fasting,finallyoccurs in two forms, sexual
and gustatory. Mnemosyne herself had not been able to help Maurice, al-
though the encounter with her is the precondition for Clarke's writing of the
poem. However, withdrawal to the sexual self-sufficiency of masturbation
in part X offers itself as one release and as a form of paradoxical affiliation
with his fellow inmates:
Often in priestly robe on a
Night of full moon, out of the waste,
A solitary figure, self-wasted,
Stole from the encampments - Onan,
Consoler of the young, the timid,
The captive. Administering, he passed down
The ward. Balsam was in his hand.
The self-sufficer, the anonym. (p. 343)
Maurice Harmon regards Clarke's Onan as merely 'eerie and destructive',
as belonging to a 'perverse priesthood', one whose relief is 'furtive, shame-
ful and associated with madness' (Harmon, Introduction, 217). As readers
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masturbation is the subject of the more truly shameful extorted 'confession'


of 'tak[ing] pleasure when alone' which was wrung out of the seven-year-old
Clarke by an over-zealous priest (p. 199). Onan symbolises Maurice's ab-
jection: both are 'self-sufficers', or 'anonyms' to use Clarke's telling coinage.
As Corcoran observes, Clarke also fills the absence at the poem's centre
'with the presence of the conditioning circumstances which have provoked
and produced that absence: the impossibility of a true sexual relation; the
anxiety induced by a false, neurotic religion; the terror of living through
a period of violent political upheaval'.20 In spite of his mythopoeic and
therefore illusory aspect ('Balsam' recalls the 'balsam' tree of Maurice's ear-
lier mythic improvisation), Onan nevertheless grants a physical benediction,
a release which makes flow just about the one bodily fluid - semen - which
has not yet done so in this poem. Unlike the 'unwanted' semen in Maurice's
reliving of his sexually continent relationship with 'Margaret'/Geraldine,
an impossibly asexual 'romantic dream', this is much desired, and libera-
tory. It is no coincidence, therefore, that after accepting the 'Balsam', in
parts XI and XII of the poem, he breaks his fast with food brought by his
mother.
The moment is a Wordsworthian one - 'Nature', as it is glossed, 'Remem-
bering a young believer . . . Gave him from the lovely hand/Of his despairing
mother/A dish of strawberries' (344). But it is also, and equally importantly,
a Keatsian one. This is not just because the urge to gratify the senses which
sees Maurice reach out to take the fruit beside him ('so ripe, ruddy, deli-
cious') is described in terms of sexual anticipation and deferral which recall
the feast 'heap'd' at Madeleine's bedside in 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'. It is
also because Mnemosyne herself inevitably reminds us of the Mnemosyne of
Keats' Hyperion who becomes the main figure (under the name of Moneta,
her Roman designation) of The Fall of Hyperion. She, like Onan, is a figure
who appears 'self-wasted', a monitory but healing and empowering pres-
ence. As in The Fall of Hyperion, Moneta-Mnemosyne in Keats' poem leads
the mortal who encounters her to endure a trial which would kill him, should
he fail. 'Nature' helps save Maurice, then, but so too do his bodily appetites
and memories (or, as Keats phrased it, in one of his final despairing po-
ems to Fanny Brawne, 'Touch has a memory').21 Clarke/Devane, like Keats,
overcomes an oppressive, archaic and patriarchal mythography through the
agency of an all-knowing female figure, but he also overcomes self-hatred
through an act of will and the material agency of his birth mother. In doing
so, it might be added, Yeats and the power of myth are acknowledged and
bypassed in a recovery presided over by female figures. Maurice's recovery,
Mnemosyne's restoration from 'dust', and poetry itself, are signified in the
difference between the verbs in the poem's first and final lines; between 'the

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house where he was gof (p. 327) and 'the house where his mother was born'
(p. 352) (my emphasis). It is a difference which charts precisely a progress
from inert, animal conception to human origin, and a healing return of the
repressed.2-2

At the end of his life Clarke chose to explore sexual experience in a positive
if less realist light than in his previous poetry. The result was a series of
extraordinary narrative poems. The Dilemma of Iphis' (1970), 'The Healing
of Mis' (1970), Tiresias (1971) and 'The Wooing of Becfola' (1974), return to
mythology and legend, at least partly in an attempt to outdo Yeats's persona
of the wild old wicked man. Typically, Clarke's version of the close of an Irish
poet's career is anti-phallocentric, a set of tales about women being more
capable of sexual pleasure than men ('The Dilemma of Iphis' and Tiresias),
a wife's ambiguous loyalty to her husband ('The Wooing of Becfola'), and a
past of abuse (and an abusive past) overcome by what Marvin Gaye would
have called sexual healing ('The Healing of Mis').
In this latter poem, Clarke adapts a Gaelic original in which Duv Ruis,
a harper-poet, takes on the challenge of reclaiming Mis, a woman who has
lost her mind and has been living in the forest, wild and unkempt, 'for three
centuries' (Collected Poems, 509). Failure will mean death for Ruis; but
he wins her from savagery with music, kindness, coins, 'a griddle cake', a
good bath and much mutually enjoyable sex - what Mis calls 'the feat of the
wand' (511) If this sounds too close to an old man's lurid fantasy, or even
received sexist wisdom that all an 'unfeminine' woman needs is sex with a
'real' man, Clarke characteristically queries most of the stereotypes the story
sets up. Most obviously, the musical, cooking Ruis, who washes Mis 'like a
mother' and '[keeps] house' for her is himself the 'feminine' partner in this
relationship, and is reliant on Mis when they first make love: 'He waited,
obedient as she helped/Him through the hymen' (the later Clarke is almost
clinical in his descriptions of the sexual act) (513). More disturbingly,
Ruis observes that Mis suffers from the 'stir and dire cry' of bad dreams
(514). The anticipation of the 'curative methods of Freud' by the original
text, mentioned by Clarke in his note to the poem, is activated (557). Mis
tells Ruis her buried memories of volcanic eruptions, of zigzagging through
labyrinthine passages, and finally of being 'Unvirgined by the Minotaur -
/I knew my father' (515). The passages recall those describing Clarke's
own childhood terrors of rooms and passages at the beginning of Twice
Round the Black Church; and Mis's madness is shown to have its source
in the breaking of two primal taboos - cannibalism (the drinking of human

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blood) and incest. The only cure is the talking cure and its power to help
Mis 'rememorise' herself, to use the term applied to Maurice Devane. In the
original tale, Ruis is murdered after his success whereupon Mis, now re-
covered, composes his elegy. But, as Maxton acutely notes, Clarke's version
eliminates the retributive, sacrificial element and brings us to a conclusion in
which,fittingly,'poet and woman are united' although, as in psychotherapy,
nothing is ever absolutely concluded (Selected Poems, 20).
It turns out that 'The Healing of Mis' is less a tale with a happy ending than
one of a number of provisional conclusions to a body of work which explores
and demystifies the stereotypes which trap individuals and nations. In this
work, silencing begins as individual but is made collective and representative
through its deployment in a satirically creative demolition of the status quo.
At all points, it is worth stressing, this is inseparable from a linguistic re-
versal of silencing, in the form of stylistic resistance to incorporation within
the discourses of others and reduction to instrumental linguistic usage. The
complex music of the brilliantly transposed Gaelic metrics found in the ear-
lier poetry is complemented, or supplanted, in the later work by something
only apparently ungainly; and style and form are inseparable from content
and purpose in a way which is rare in much Irish poetry. The wordplay and
foregrounding of the literary device in the later poems is calculatedly exces-
sive and outrageous, including as it does rime riche, homonyms, anagrams,
acrostics, trisyllabic rhyme, puns and neologisms.23
Syntactically, parataxis is the norm in this work, and together with rhymes
such as 'Voltaire'/'volt tear' (or 'petrol'/'pet, roll', or the reverse-rhyme 'toe-
nail'/'natoed'), is precisely calculated to disrupt expectations of a smoothly
discursive narrative style. Clarke's later use of the device represents a dis-
placement of the more mildly disruptive, pulsional rhythms of the early po-
etry into an angular style, as if he feels compelled to offset the concessions
he is forced to grant to realism and reportage in order to make a public
statement. His own comparison of these procedures with those of a certain
London street-entertainer is well known: 'I load myself with chains and try
to get out of them' (Collected Poems, 545), and they embody the strug-
gle for release which informs his poetry at every level. Opposed as he is to
utilitarian reductionism and bogus transcendentalism, Clarke's style can be
linked to a religious doubt which proves its genuineness by stressing the ma-
teriality of its medium, language. As Maxton claims, the desire to 'confront
an inability to believe' nevertheless indicates an 'inability to disbelieve', and
Clarke's doubt is an 'activity which is religious in itself and not merely in
its concerns' (Selected Poems, 12). His entire poetic therefore proclaims the
materiality and constructedness of the poem, even as it permits a negative
theology to emerge from the ruins of an orthodox faith.

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Bravura technique, satiric but compassionate social analysis and spiritual


self-exploration run together in Clarke's best poems. Though he began his
career as a poet of myth in the neo-Revival mould, he developed ways of
turning its essentialist tendencies against themselves for demystifying, recu-
perative ends. It is significant, for example, that Mnemosyne sets up, but then
dismantles, its big symbolic-mythic apparatus of Fountain, Gate and Garden.
Donald Davie, in his early championing of Clarke's post-1955 work, argued
that Clarke 'is further from mythopoeia than any poet one might think of,
and this at a time when there were 'good hard-headed reasons for the modern
Irish poet to take the mythopoeic path against which Clarke set his face'.24
In the light of Mnemosyne and the late narratives, this might seem some-
what rash, but the identification of the demystifying urge is correct. Clarke's
achievement in this area is tonic, and ultimately aligns him with Joyce rather
than his bete noir Yeats.
It might just be that few Irish poets of the past hundred years have quite as
much contemporary relevance as Clarke. A feminist, socialist humanist and
scathing satirist of the hypocrisy of Church and State, Clarke would surely
feel at home in the contentious 'Celtic Tiger' Republic of the early twenty-
first century. Far from looking quaint, the poet who, in his seventies, could
consider calling a collection The Pill, and write verses about napalm, or about
what was to become the EU, would be in his element. If Clarke has looked out
of place in a society which, by and large, reacted to recession and the Troubles
with a reassertion of older pieties, the most recent developments allow us to
glimpse a future in which poetry like Clarke's will gain new currency, and
our relative ignorance of him seem a merely temporary aberration.

NOTES
1 All page references for poems are given for Liam Miller (ed.), Austin Clarke: Col-
lected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974). See also Austin Clarke: Selected Poems
(Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1991), which contains an invaluable introduction by Hugh
Maxton.
2 See Terence Brown, 'Austin Clarke: Satirist' in Ireland's Literature (Dublin: Giggin-
stown: Lilliput, 1988) and Neil Corcoran, The Blessings of Onan: Austin Clarke's
Mnemosyne Lay in Dust\ Irish University Review, 13: 1 (Spring 1983), pp. 43-53.
3 Seamus Deane in Celtic Revivals (London: Faber and Faber, 1985) refers briefly
and in passing to the 'randy clerics of Clarke's beehive-hut civilisation' and his
'glamourising' of the medieval clergy; Declan Kiberd, in Inventing Ireland (London:
Jonathan Cape, 1995), depoliticises him by implying that his critique was directed
solely against the 'intolerance' of the Irish Church, which is the purely colonial
creation of 'the imperial and evangelical spirit of the British race'. Edna Longley in
The Living Stream (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1994) mentions none of Clarke's
work after 1938.

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4 John Goodby, Irish poetry since 1950: from stillness into history (Manchester
University Press, 1999), pp. 21-8.
5 Clarke mentions 'my own recent work which is inspired by belief in the immediate
needs for an Irish Welfare State' in his short study Poetry in Modern Ireland (Cork:
Mercier Press, 1951).
6 Samuel Beckett, 'Recent Irish Poetry', in Ruby Cohn (ed.), Disjecta: Miscellaneous
Writings and a Dramatic fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), p. 71.
7 See WJ. McCormack, 'Austin Clarke: The Poet as Scapegoat of Modernism', in
Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of
the 1930s (Cork University Press, 1995), pp. 75-102.
8 See Goodby, Irish poetry since 195 0, pp. 5-6 and 21-2.
9 Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (Cork University Press, 1931),
p. 19.
10 David Cairns and Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and
Culture (Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 133. See also Gerry Smythe, De-
colonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature (London: Pluto
Press, 1998).
11 Austin Clarke, 'Love in Irish Poetry and Drama', Motleyr, 1: 5 (October 1932),
PP- 3-4-
12 See Julia Carlson (ed.), Banned in Ireland: Censorship & the Irish Writer (London:
Routledge, 1990).
13 Terence Browne, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-85 (London:
Fontana, 1985), P- 77-
14 Thomas Kinsella, 'The Poetic Career of Austin Clarke', Irish University Review,
4: 1 (1974), p. 128.
15 Patrick Kavanagh, Padraic Fallon, Thomas MacGreevy and Brian Coffey all suf-
fered such breaks; many young poets, such as Patrick Galvin, Pearse Hutchinson
and Desmond O'Reilly left Ireland. Some, like Valentin Iremonger, gave up writing
altogether.
16 The same horse theme is developed in Forget-me-not, Collected Poems, pp. 237-
43-
17 Brown, Ireland's Literature, pp. 134-5.
18 Quoted in Maurice Harmon, Austin Clarke: A Critical Introduction (Dublin:
Wolfhound, 1989) p. 145.
19 Corcoran, 'The Blessings of Onan', pp. 44-6.
20 Ibid., pp. 47-8.
21 Miriam Allott (ed.), Keats: The Complete Poems (London: Longman, 1972),
pp. 673-4 and 686.
22 See W.J. McCormack, in Coughlan and Davis, p. 98.
23 Clarke's own note on rime riche in the Collected Poems provides a hint as to his
usage of the device: '. . . in English the second homonym seems at times to be
ironic in effect, and in composite self-rhyme may lead back, perhaps, to the mood
of Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper [by Robert Browning], in
which the rhyme becomes a running commentary' (Collected Poems, p. 555n).
24 Donald Davie, 'Austin Clarke and Padraic Fallon', in Douglas Dunn, Two
Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey (Manchester: Carcanet, 1975), pp. 38
and 41.

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JONATHAN ALLISON

Patrick Kavanagh and antipastoral

I'm the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the
inside.
(Patrick Kavanagh, 1949 )r

I
'Pastoral' has been defined in a variety of ways, and has been said to include
the 'antipastoral', though some readers will wish to make a rigid distinc-
tion between the two, while recognising that both are intimately related.
Traditionally, pastoral is a matter of rural life and shepherds, idyllic land-
scapes in which people corrupted by court and city life are changed and
renewed. It suggests a healing antithesis to the corrupting influence of urban
experience, but has been characterised simply as poetry of the countryside
(however defined), and does not always envision an idealised and falsified,
conflict-free zone, transcending the tensions of history, though it can do that,
too. 'Antipastoral', on the other hand, suggests a poetics of undermining, in
which pastoral conventions are deployed or alluded to, in order to suggest
or declare the limitations of those conventions, or their downright falsity. If
pastoral suggests that rural life offers freedom, antipastoral may proclaim
it is a prison-house, and the farmers slaves. Historically, antipastoral has
been associated with Goldsmith's The Deserted Village (1770) and George
Crabbe's The Village (1783), with certain poems of John Clare, and with
Stephen Duck who, in The Thresher's Labour (1736) wrote, 'No fountains
murmur here, no Lambkins play, / No Linnets warble, and no Fields look
gay'.2 A defining feature of such poetry has been its realistic treatment of
labour, protest against idealising poetic traditions, and in some cases outcry
against political conditions related to land enclosure. For Seamus Heaney,
pastoral is a matter of 'idealised landscape with contented figures,' but with
antipastoral, 'sweat and pain and deprivation are acknowledged'.3 Patrick

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Kavanagh, in his long poem of 1942, The Great Hunger, acknowledged all
that, and more.
Early in his career, during an impoverished literary apprenticeship in the
1930s, Kavanagh wrote short, religious pastoral lyrics, before his animus
found vent with his celebrated depiction of Patrick Maguire and small farm-
ers in a fictional townland, closely modeled on Kavanagh's home ground of
Donaghmoyne in County Monaghan. Later, after a ferocious battle in the
law courts and a lung operation in the mid-1950s, Kavanagh entered a pe-
riod of relative calm, as man and poet, when he composed the Canal Bank
Sonnets. Throughout his life, he wrote versions of pastoral, although he is
remembered by most for The Great Hunger, which did indeed acknowledge
sweat, pain and deprivation, and posed an aesthetic challenge to the pastoral
myths of the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival, including the myth of the noble
peasant and the mythology of 'cosy homesteads' and 'dancing at the cross-
roads' propagated by Eamon de Valera's new government of the Republic of
Ireland.4 Kavanagh's tirades against the poetry and ideology of the Revival
were spoken from the viewpoint of a farmer-poet dismayed by writers of
national pastoral who, in many cases, had little genuine experience of rural,
let alone agricultural life.
His beginnings were in the mystical pastoral lyrics (what his biographer
Antoinette Quinn calls 'decorous pastoral verses'5), encouraged by his men-
tor 'AE' (George Russell, 1867-1935), and collected in Ploughman and Other
Poems (1936). In these, a beautiful landscape is contemplated by the poet-
labourer, a place of divine manifestation, where the privileged viewer may
have a mystical vision. It was this aspect of the poetry that urged one derisive
reviewer to complain that 'echoes of the factitious Celtic mysticism of na-
ture come trailing like rags of gaudy gauze'.6 In 'Ploughman', for instance,
the meadow is a painterly brown, the field 'lea-green,' and labour (disguised
as painting) is performed gleefully ('Gaily now').7 In 'To a Blackbird,' the
poet claims kinship with the eponymous bird, and against a picturesque
background of lakes, he hears sweet songs in a gentle wind blowing over
the hills (p. 3). Here is rural subject matter, an idyllic landscape, a place
of reverie, free of anguish or indeed conflict. 'Ploughman' is a prayer-like,
religious pastoral, with Christian diction, where the landscape offers visions
of a 'star-lovely art', with the divine immanent in the land: '. . . ecstasy /
Like a prayer'. In 'To a Blackbird', men plead for religious conversion 'With
the Most High'; in 'Mary' we are told 'Her name's in every prayer' (4); in
'I May Reap' the speaker wishes that he 'By God's grace may come to har-
vest' (4). The speaker in 'A Star' stretches out his hands to the 'Seraphim' (8).
On the other hand, we do find the imagination of disappointment at

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the stunted growth of a tree, which 'will never hide sparrows / From hun-
gry hawks' ('April', 7). Yet April is welcomed as a harbinger of new life, and
hope springs near the meadows where spring is pregnant 'By the Holy Ghost'
(18). It is not certain that the seeds of The Great Hunger are contained in
such delicate but ardent visions.
A much admired early poem, 'Inniskeen Road: July Evening', a Shake-
spearean sonnet (with Miltonic division between octave and sestet), offers
a more complex viewpoint (19). Set in the heart of summer, with nature
blooming all around, the speaker's palpable sense of isolation from men cy-
cling to the dance suggests clear ambivalence about his position. After the
men have passed him by, the speaker witnesses the silence as peaceful but
somehow vacuous. He is more aware of the absence of people than of the
presence of a compelling natural landscape: 'no shadow thrown / That might
turn out a man or woman'. Loneliness prohibits his enjoyment of nature as
a place of contemplation; sympathy with the Crusoe-like Alexander Selkirk
suggests alienation from the land, a feeling of being imprisoned, or stranded
on a desert island. The rustic scene, therefore, is celebrated for its freedom
but recognised as a place of banishment: he is king 'Of banks and stones
and every blooming thing'. Such ambivalence helps to sound a troubled and
ambiguous pastoral note.
Another celebrated lyric, 'Shancoduff (printed in Dublin Magazine, 1937,
later published in Come Dance with Kitty Stobling), recognises the bleakness
and impoverishment of home, but finds the energy to celebrate it (30). The
poet's essay 'The Parish and the Universe' throws light on the assumptions
behind this poem: 'The parochial mentality . . . is never in any doubt about
the social and artistic validity of his parish'.8 One must recognise the home
turf as fit subject matter for poetry, to affirm it courageously in face of
external pressures to denigrate what objectively may seem uninteresting. His
hills are 'my' black hills, which strikes the all-important note of ownership
(he later says 'They are my Alps'). Bleak, shaded, north-facing and cut off
from sunshine, they see no sunrise, 'eternally'. 'Incurious', the hills don't
look back, are independent and unchanging. This makes them sound rather
dull, until relief comes with the surprising word 'happy': happy when dawn
comes to whiten the nearby chapel, echoing the sacramental note of the
aforementioned poems. Nevertheless, resistance to idealisation in the poem,
its bleak candour and courageous obsession with plainness, does much to
distinguish it from 'Ploughman' and similar poems.
'Stony Grey Soil' (written October 1940, published 1947), presents an
unillusioned view of the rural landscape, and realises an increase in the
poet's critical faculties in relation to that world. As Quinn observes, it is
in many respects the poem that anticipates the fury of The Great Hunger,

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and the soil in question 'will become the dispirited "clay" that dominates all
rural life in The Great Hunger'.9 The unbeautiful landscape of childhood is
admired briefly, but blamed for ruining his life; it stole his laughter, youth,
love and passion, and deprived him of his 'vision / Of Beauty'. The plough has
destroyed him ('O green-life-conquering plough!'), and marked forever his
brow with signs of stress (82). He claims he was treated like an animal, and
that his farming life was one of moral cowardice. The poem ends by naming
townlands dear to him in youth ('Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco'),
but the pastoral connotations of such naming are totally undercut by the fact
they conjure up in his mind the 'Dead loves that were born for me'. Love-
denying, they are places of prohibition, constriction and death. The poem
is a direct address to the soil, characterised not as fructive and supportive,
but as manipulative and malign (in this one respect the soil resembles the
portrait in The Great Hunger). However, in terms of the poet's search for
subject matter, the stony soil of his past provides a fertile ground for this
and further poems on the topic, and the mixed tones of disgust and love
anticipate ambivalences to be explored later.

II
The Great Hunger established Kavanagh as the fiercest, and one of the most
innovative Irish poets after Yeats.10 The fourteen-section poem is antipas-
toral in several respects: implicitly scorning sentimental depictions of peasant
life as popularised by writers of the Revival, it invokes the farming landscape
only to depict it as infertile and barely productive; it portrays the life of the
peasant as utterly boring, if not utterly degraded, and as unheroic and life-
denying, whereas conventionally it had been depicted as noble and heroic.
The peasant is not the eloquent, vigorous farmer of national tradition, but
mute, petty and jealous; the local community is no harmonious, organic so-
ciety, but a collection of individual families which are in many ways jealous
rivals. Maguire and his men are depicted at first as merely mechanical labour-
ers, and throughout the poem are seen as passive, without agency. Their lives
exemplify what Kavanagh in the poem calls 'the weak, washy way of true
tragedy' - tragedy not in any classical sense, but in the sense of a restricted
life without choice, luck or grace (53). Humans are reduced to commodities -
to 'what is written on the label'. Maguire is good-hearted, but dominated
by his manipulative, elderly mother. He lives in fear of a vengeful God, or
at least of vigilant clergy. The religion practiced in the community smacks
of uniformity and convention, though affording occasional consolation and
uplift. 'Married' to the fields, fearing sin, and fearing but craving sexual in-
timacy, Maguire lives a life of sexual abstinence (despite masturbating into

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the grate), and is depicted variously as emasculated, impotent, feminised,


womanish and as a eunuch. His debility is more than hinted at in the line,
'The pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows' (35). Young
women like Agnes, in section seven, crave courtship and marriage, but the
men are blind to her needs, or afraid of them, and courting rituals are ap-
parently non-existent. The pub is a gathering place for local men, but their
conversation is satirised as pointless, ill-informed and competitive. Meetings
at the crossroads are occasions of inertia and bovine lethargy. This is a far
cry from the pastoral crossroads dances with 'comely maidens' invoked by
Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera in a famous speech of the 1930s about the
rural basis of Irish society. The agricultural conditions of the farm are infe-
rior: the land is damp and largely clay, and grazing conditions are appalling:
the poem ends with the dramatic image of an 'apocalypse of clay' (55).
Section one of the poem begins with the mock-Biblical evocation of the
gospel according to John - 'Clay is the word and clay is the flesh' - establish-
ing satirical distance from comfortable views of rural life and religious con-
solation. Hopeless labourers are reduced to the status of 'crows', or automa-
tons. They are passive in the face of an overwhelming routine of hard work
and comfortless bachelordom. If the poem recalls Stephen Dedalus's analysis
of Irish national life as conditioned by the nets of religion and nationality,
Dedalus, unlike Maguire, had the wherewithal to 'fly by those nets'. Maguire
can laugh with his friends 'Of how he came free from every net spread / In
the gaps of experience', but in reality he does not escape so lightly (34).
His life is conditioned by 'marriage' to the land and the inescapable 'grip of
the fields', hence his anger at his mother, who always praised farmers who
make the farm their bride. If traditional pastoral suggests social integrity,
built upon harmonious family and community relations, the divided family
unit in the townland of Donaghmoyne speaks to fragmentation at personal
and communal levels. Maguire distrusts his mother, who manipulates him
continuously: 'And he knows that his own heart is calling his mother a liar'
(36). The grammar of that line, contrasting the knowing faculty with the
heart, also suggests division within the self. Divided within, his spirit is 'a wet
sack' in the wind; the house of Maguire is 'an iron house', suggesting both the
confining structure of a prison cell and the unbending structure of destiny.
In the second section, the 65-year-old bachelor farmer is faithful only to
his mother (who lived until she was 91), and to the land. Repetition of the
phrase 'O he loved' is ironic in light of his bachelorhood and the absence of
fulfillment in his life (37). His chief pleasures are physical but solitary; his
only dream is to smoke his pipe or to 'clean his arse / with perennial grass, /
On the bank of some summer streams' (37). The vulgar colloquialism con-
trasts strikingly with the pastoral image of the summer bank. (Indeed,

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most of this section was bowdlerised because considered too vulgar (too
antipastoral?) when published in A Soul for Sale.) Depicted as emasculated,
diminished by daily farming chores, he is a thwarted figure, a 'eunuch' of
the fields.
In section three, Maguire's mother is portrayed misogynistically as tough,
ugly and demanding: 'a venomous drawl / And a wizened face like moth-
eaten leatherette' (37). The first stanza of this section has thirteen lines, but
the second and third stanzas are sonnets. The March scene is desolate, with
a cold wind blowing, and the ploughing of the 'virgin' fields is depicted as a
kind of rape (38).11 The relationship between earth and its tiller is violent and
invasive. Farmers are jealous of each other, who watch one another 'with all
the sharpened interest of rivalry' (38). The sonnet turns after the eighth line
to the mysticism more usually found in the pastoral lyrics of the 1930s: 'Yet
sometimes when the sun comes through a gap / These men know God the
Father in a tree' (38). Many of them perceive fleetingly the natural beauty
of their surroundings, understood as a manifestation of the Christian God
at Easter. The sacrifice of realism here makes Donaghmoyne seem more of a
united, religious community than elsewhere in the poem. This is an example
of how pastoral breaks in occasionally to the darker antipastoral narrative,
but not disrupting the overall antipastoral tone of the poem.
A church scene, in which Maguire, casually at prayer, is distracted by
thoughts of turnips, dominates the fourth section (set one month later, in
April): never for long can his thoughts stray from his fields. The dull unifor-
mity of the congregation is delivered bathetically in the image of the entire
church coughing 'in unison' (39). Nevertheless, the rhetoric at one point rises
to the level of religious vision: 'And the pregnant Tabernacle lifted a mo-
ment to Prophecy / Out of the clayey hours' (39). The passage employs the
biblical imagery of the sermon to suggest the nature of the peoples' religious
aspirations, which provide momentary Christian revelation. The limitations
of such revelations are suggested by a phlegmy 'Amen': half-prayer, half-
cough.
Maguire recalls a romantic encounter one previous summer's day, spoiled
by fear and his puritanical association of desire with sin: 'And he saw Sin
/ Written in letters larger than John Bunyan dreamt of (39). Capitalisation
of the key word, and the use of half-line, conveys the religious character
of Maguire's apprehensions. Comparison with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
suggests a seventeenth-century religious sensibility, and yet the poet laments
the repression of instinct entailed by this kind of response. Alone, Maguire
resorts to stroking the flanks of the cattle, 'in lieu of wife to handle' (40).
Personification, and heightened diction influenced by biblical language lend
the section's closing lines a tone of conclusive authority, implying that the

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farmer is made cowardly by overwhelming religious fears. With a symbolic


'wet weed' bathetically twined around his boot, cowed by fear of the Lord,
he seems inglorious (40).
The fifth section opens with an informal gathering at a traditional coun-
try crossroads, but within a few lines, traditional pastoral expectations are
dashed by the depiction of this world as meaningless, bovine and lethargic:
'Heavy heads nodding out words as wise / As the rumination of cows af-
ter milking' (40). When a boy casually throws a piece of gravel onto the
nearby railway line, 'It means nothing' (40). Conversation among those
heads is anything but wise, who are described as dreamers, sunk in iner-
tia. Compounding the tone of drift, Maguire returns to a meagre supper,
and obscenely masturbates in the grate.
In section six, Maguire sits on a 'railway slope' in May, dreaming of wealth
and love, but his hopes are dashed and frustrated by lack of opportunity.
Though an idealist of sorts (he dreams of 'all or nothing'), he achieves noth-
ing. The language tends to the mystical when we are told God 'is not all /
In one place, complete', and the idea is given a distinctly Catholic resonance
with the image of Holy Communion: 'In a crumb of bread the whole mystery
is' (41). If the poem has any note of redemption, it can be found here, in
the image of the host, but the redemptive note is not sustained. Maguire
turns from the world of the senses to an obscure mysticism, which seems un-
likely to render lasting satisfaction. It is a door 'whose combination lock has
puzzled / Philosopher and priest and common dunce' (41). His wishes are
'frozen', and he is incapable of finding an enabling religious faith. We return
to the scene by the 'railway slope', and to the atmosphere of psychological
and artistic inertia suggested by 'a speechless muse'.
The seventh section begins with the mother's words, urging him to chapel
to pray and confess his sins. It is hoped religious devotion will bring luck
and material betterment, but the poem's ironies disallow such good fortune,
and the narrator dismisses her words as 'a lie' (42). A young woman, Agnes,
lifts her skirts 'sensationally up' to perform for the voyeur Maguire, giving
further testimony to the deprivations of this starving world, dominated by
religious dualism and fear of the body,'... in that metaphysical land / Where
flesh was a thought more spiritual than music' (42). Unable to love, lusting
in thought, sexually puritanical, no local man would marry her. The risque
pastoralism of the image of a woman baring herself to wet grass, a scene
of Lawrentian intensity, is offset by the antipastoralism of this all-pervasive
emotional repression and despairing need.
In section eight, Maguire's ennui is conveyed by dull, slack repetitions,
expressed in short, childlike lines, many of them end-rhymed. Sitting on the
gate, uncaring, he 'inconsequently sang' - without consequence, but also

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'inconsequentially' (43). He lived for the moment, was satisfied by the


health of his animals, by his cigarette and his pint. Still, however, 'young
women ran wild / And dreamed of a child' (43). Although hungry for
companionship and marriage, and dressed as provocatively as they could,
they were unable to secure the affections of ignorant or 'blind' men. Everyone
lived in a purgatory of unfulfilled desire, accepted by Maguire resignedly, as
'necessary pain'.
In section nine, he 'gave himself another year', warding off despair in the
face of failure, putting faith in some change - marriage, perhaps - that would
come to him soon, when he 'would be a new man walking through unbroken
meadows' (44). Yet the peasants are terminally ignorant, overshadowed by
the church, physically weak and deprived of vitality. The peasant poet's writ-
ing is 'tortured' and likened to 'pulled weeds on the ridge', withering in the
sun (45). Emasculated by solitary writing, he is given female characteristics:
his writing is 'a mad woman's signature,' his thought process 'an enclosed
nun'. The image of his life as 'dried in the veins', oppressed by the chapel's
low ceiling, is reminiscent of Yeats's Paudeen, in 'September 1913', or of the
imagery of death in Eliot's The Waste Land, both of which were familiar to
Kavanagh.
Maguire's soul has no essence, is only a hole left by a farm animal: 'the
mark of a hoof in guttery gaps'. Yet, despite this, light enters the picture
fitfully. Trout playing in the pools, young girls sitting on the river bank paint
a picture of pastoral distraction, but Maguire lacks a lover's courage. But-
tercups, bluebells and goldfinches contribute to the picturesque background
to this peasant drama, stimulants to the imagination of an exotic elsewhere:
'A man might imagine then / Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of
paradise'. However, this edifice of otherworlds is flimsily imagined, like sto-
ries told at night by the fireside, which are gloomily contrasted, at the end
of the ninth section, with the funereal wind blowing from the tomb.
The relatively short tenth section (29 lines) sketches, in almost anthropo-
logical fashion ('Their intellectual life consisted in . . .'), the reading habits
of the Monaghan farming community - local newspapers, almanacs, school
books - but their main preoccupation seems to be talk in the public bar.
The satiric narrative voice skewers the intellectual pretensions of partici-
pants in these nightly debates; Maguire aspired to rise 'To a professorship
like Larry McKenna or Duffy / Or the pig-gelder Nallon whose knowledge
was amazing'.
In the much longer section eleven, Maguire is emasculated, 'more woman
than man', controlled by sister and mother - the former a middle-aged virgin,
his mother a sharp-voiced nag, whose voice is 'like a rust-worn knife' (47).
The feminisation of Maguire is part of the poem's antipastoralism. All cliches

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about the nobility of masculine labour and the strength of the farmer are
challenged here. Maguire is occasionally portrayed with a certain dignity
and authority:'... his voice was the voice of a great cattle-dealer'. Generally
though, the picture is bleak. Bachelordom takes on qualities of the female
ageing process: menopause or 'the misery pause' (47). Since fear of the
law prevented him from approaching schoolgirls, he resorts to masturbation.
Even at such a sordid moment, the poet-narrator urges readers to empathise,
as he himself does: 'Illiterate, unknown and unknowing. / Let us kneel where
he kneels / And feel what he feels' (48). (We presume this is empathy, not
a joke). At this point comes a moment of illumination, similar to such brief
epiphanies in earlier lyrics. Inspired by the sight of a daisy to recall his
childhood, he wonders 'was there a fairy hiding behind it?' Childish naivety
is accompanied by kindness towards others, notably lacking in other family
members, such as the sister who 'spat poison at the children' (49). The
closing lines indicate the farmers are semi-conscious, 'happy as the dead
or sleeping' (50).
Impoverished farming conditions are portrayed in twelve: fields bleached
white, the place is 'grassless', and a Siberian wind crosses the fields, scattering
the cattle fodder (50). A scene of horrid grazing conditions is set against a
forbidding background of 'black branches'. Though dying, Maguire's mother
controls her now middle-aged children; likened to puppets, they have little
or no agency. When she died, they felt no sorrow. The section's final words
might speak for Maguire, his sister, or both; the frustration it expresses
prevents anything more elegiac being said, while conveying the despair of the
captive farmer: 'I am locked in a stable with pigs and cows for ever' (52).
Section thirteen contains some of the harshest satire in the poem. Kavanagh
ridicules the cliches that abound about peasant life: that the farmer's life is
healthy and fulfilling; that he is in harmony with the elements, as well as the
divine. Clearly, the poet associates this naive, patronising attitude with the
writing of the Revival, which he called elsewhere 'a thorough-going, English-
bred lie'. The description of the peasantry in terms of culture, religion and
poetry suggests that it is primarily the cultural theorists of the primitivist
Revival he aims at here: 'There is the source from which all cultures rise, /
And all religions' (52). While great creating nature all around him is free and
fecund, while cows and horses breed, humiliated Maguire is tethered to his
mother by an umbilical 'navel-cord'.
The final section, set in October, uses theatrical metaphors to announce a
finale. The poet asks for applause, including from the farm animals, but in
context, cheering seems like mockery, as the elements of traditional pastoral-
homing carts, cows at gates, 'screeching water-hens' - seem to sneer at
Maguire's world, with 'the hysterical laughter of the defeated everywhere'

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(54). The elements of pastoral scream in protest against the conditions


they live among. The funereal, deathly imagery of the opening lines of this
section anticipates the note of waning sexual energy depicted in Maguire
('no manhood now') and his sister ('wick of an oil-less lamp'). It also lays
the groundwork for the surreal passage imagining Maguire lying in his grave,
fearing to see a woman's legs, for fear of sin. Will Maguire's soul survive his
death? Will he be reincarnated as a bird, or become an angel? Will there
be nothing? - 'Or is the earth right that laughs haw-haw / And does not
believe / In an unearthly law?' (55). The tone suggests the latter, despite the
poem's pervasive religious imagery. Jeering of the earth (conventionally con-
trolled by, or in harmony with and nourishing of its inhabitants) at human
aspirations to immortality is the ultimate antipastoral gesture. The dismal
conclusion conveys a picture of hopeless impotency on a national scale ('In
every corner of this land'). The phrase 'apocalypse of clay' echoes the opening
lines, in which biblical authority was undermined by the ubiquity of infertile
clay, substituting for the word of God. The notion of a national apocalypse,
signaled by the 'hungry fiend' (a Monaghan version of Yeats's rough beast
from his poem 'The Second Coming', perhaps), supports the view that the
poem is not only antipastoral but national anti-epic.

Ill
Writing in 1964, Kavanagh criticised The Great Hunger for failing to achieve
a comic vision, by which he meant a vision of suffering in the context of a
Christian perspective.12 He complained that the poem had been tied to a civic
or utilitarian ethic - arguing 'the woes of the poor' - and was aesthetically
impure, and undeveloped. The poem was 'tragedy and Tragedy is underde-
veloped Comedy, not fully born. Had I stuck to the tragic thing in The Great
Hunger I would have found many powerful friends' {Collected Poems, xiv).
The notion of underdevelopment suggests he was moving from a tragic to a
comic aesthetic, which is how, in retrospect, he imagined the trajectory of his
career. In those terms, antipastoral could only be a phase that one had to go
through and grow out of, like adolescence. Kavanagh was famous for dis-
owning his own work, for he had voiced misgivings about his autobiography,
The Green Fool (1938), which he came to think of as 'stage-Irish', pastoralist,
and false. It is something of an oddity that he disowned The Great Hunger
for precisely the opposite reason, but he thought antipastoral polemic, too,
had its failings. Artistically, the long poem was a hard act to follow, and its
tone was a difficult one to sustain, had he wanted to. We find in much of
the poetry written after it (collected in the postwar volume, A Soul for Sale),
a less bitter approach to the rural experiences that had shaped him.

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Admittedly, the harsher tones of 'Stony Grey Soil' anticipate the antipas-
toral voice of the long poem, but a number of poems in A Soul for Sale
(e.g. 'A Christmas Childhood' and 'Primrose') explore the theme of lost
childhood, an innocent golden age, usually located in Monaghanfields.In
'The Long Garden', he outlines the 'childhood skies', in which realism is
balanced with a mythologising gesture, and in 'Art McCooey', memory is
integrally related to the shaping of poetry, 'alive in the unmeasured womb'.
The tender and idyllic 'Bluebells for Love' is addressed to one to whom
the speaker, not without humour, promises a gift of wild flowers. Notable
for its attractive repetitions of vivid imagery and phrase, the poem uses
pastoral language relentlessly to convey a vision of lovers' intimacy in a
remote and lovely setting. Conventional pastoral images accumulate, such
as ivy, carts that pass, bluebells, primroses, ferns, briars and violets. In ad-
dition, the scene of luxuriant growth is blessed with divine sanction and
seal; there is clear continuity of tone and feeling between this and ear-
lier romantic-pastoral poems. The contrast between such poems in A Soul
for Sale and The Great Hunger supports the view that there are several
strains in Kavanagh's work, even in the 1940s, when his antipastoralism
was most intense. As Padraic Colum argued, in his review of A Soul for Sale,
Kavanagh's work was transitional at this time, poised between celebration
and satire.13
Kavanagh's reputation was consolidated in i960 by publication of the
highly-acclaimed Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems, further
enhanced by publication, four years later, of Collected Poems. The i960 vol-
ume includes some self-regarding, satirical poems (at times tending toward
self-pitiful), such as 'The Hero', 'House Party to Celebrate the Destruction
of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland', and 'The Paddiad', which are
amusing but did not particularly impress reviewers. A richer strain can be
heard in those poems which have come to be regarded as classic Kavanagh:
the Canal Bank Sonnets, 'Epic', 'Kerr's Ass' and 'Shancoduff. These deal
with pastoral motifs and subject matter, married to a deliberate parochial
aesthetic, allowing the antipastoral to submerge, and a strong redemptive
voice to surface, in which the pastoral is embraced as vehicle for revision,
radical self-renewal and affirmation.
In 'Peace' (31), for example, written in 1943, but published in i960, we
find something akin to the earlier voice, though it is roughly contemporane-
ous with The Great Hunger. Demonstrating nostalgia for rural Inniskeen,
the poem typifies the occasional backward look of Kavanagh's Dublin years,
an aspect of his complicated response to the life left behind. This nostalgic
note has been identified by Antoinette Quinn as a regular reflex in poetry
after the publication of Tarry Flynn in 1948, and can be detected throughout

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his writing of the 1950s: 'the countryside now became an imaginative hin-
terland to be revisited momentarily, though often memorably'.14 Apparently
envying the peasant his simple life, the poet evokes a series of typical pas-
toral images: the hare on the headland, an old plough, a weedy ridge, a
saddle-harrow, and refers to a lost 'childhood country', associated with in-
nocence and relative leisure. Such qualities may have seemed particularly
attractive from the viewpoint of Dublin during the 'Emergency' (the Second
World War). A reference to 'tyrants' is a sign of the times, and line seven -
curiously, a line that cannot be integrated into the rhyme scheme - refers to
wartime farming conditions, the 'turf banks stripped for victory'.
'Epic' (136) explores the idea that the parish is 'important', central to one's
life, and equally significant, as poetic theme, as nationally-acclaimed events
and famous places. A farmer's argument in the humble townlands of Mucker
or Inniskeen - 'That half a rood of rock' - are just as resonant as the Munich
agreement of 1938, from Kavanagh's parishioner perspective. Even Homeric
epic was based on 'a local row', such as the feud Kavanagh alludes to here,
between Duffys and McCabes. He runs the risk of inflating this feud about
land ownership and boundaries into a battle of epic proportions, but faces a
related risk of deflating Homeric epic to a squabble in a cabbage patch. The
point he wishes to make is the artist's need to base his work on something
known, within the contours of his own experience. Make poems out of events
in the local parish, which illustrate courage, martial spirit and social conflict
just as readily as world wars. Behind this, we hear his argument about the
importance of the parish as a node where the universal can be discerned, as
outlined in 'The Parish and the Universe'. The poem relies on antipastoral,
de-idealising energies, which transform the home ground into a place of
conflict, eschewing the religious or mystical aspirations to be found in other
poems. Nor is the Monaghan townland envisaged as a garden of childhood,
vision or epiphany. Coming to the realisation that the Duffy feud was poetic
material was, for Kavanagh, similar to realising that the parish has absolute
value. Depicting the place of rural labour as a location of land disputes
is antipastoral in intention and effect, and provides a further example of
writing about rural Ireland 'from the inside' (Morrow).
In 'Kerr's Ass' (135), chatty iambic quatrains are in tension with a ca-
sual ballad stanza. As Quinn has noted, this metrical 'leisurely pace' may
reflect the poet's imaginative shuttling in the poem between residence in
London and native Inniskeen.15 Trimeter lines, alternating with pentame-
ters, risk but avoid bathos. References to Dundalk and Mucker establish
two geographic poles of the poet's imagination, recalled while in a third,
London. In stanzas two and three, he provides a detailed catalogue of
farming implements that, truth to tell, not every reader will be actively

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interested in ('harness', 'straw-stuffed straddle', 'breeching', 'bull-wire',


'winkers', 'choke-band'). He affects to address an audience familiar with such
artifacts, or is at least asking the reader to come into his world. Suddenly,
following an ellipse in line ten, tone and vantage point change, distinguishing
between the homeland of memory and the lonely-sounding 'Ealing Broad-
way, London Town', from where he recalls those lost implements. Memory
and naming feed imagination, and 'the god of imagination' is envisaged in a
dawn epiphany, associated with the fog of Mucker. The final vision, includ-
ing that aestheticising fog, has been earned by strict attention to the act of
memory, and the fantastic pastoralism of the finale grows out of the realistic
diction and catalogue of the second and third stanzas. This poem is very
different in effect from the bitter narrative of The Great Hunger, though
rooted in a similar world, while achieving the numinous uplift of his early
pastoral lyrics.
In March 1955, following upon a difficult and highly-publicised court
case for libel the previous year, Kavanagh had an operation for lung cancer
at the Rialto Hospital, Dublin; these experiences exhausted him. He spent
July of that year recuperating in the sun at St Stephen's Green, or on the
banks of the Grand Canal, between Baggot and Leeson Street Bridge. He
has described this period as his 'hegira'. The poems written at this time
signalled a bold return of pastoral in his verse, after a period of involvement
in bitter journalism and satire, when Kavanagh vented in various venues his
anger against the Dublin literary and cultural establishment. Many critics
agree that one of the high points of Kavanagh's career are the Canal Bank
Sonnets, written during this period. As Quinn notes, the two sonnets are
given pride of place at the start of the volume, Come Dance with Kitty
Stobling and Other Poems (i960), printed on the first page - a practice
maintained in Collected Poems where they both appear on one page (150).16
'Canal Bank Walk' is a Shakespearean sonnet with half-rhymes, char-
acterised by informal diction and playful phrasing (e.g. 'Leafy with love-
banks'). A dominant note is one of religious aspiration, indicated by phrases
such as 'the will of God', 'the Word' and 'enrapture'. As Quinn writes, 'The
baptismal water of spiritual redemption is now as unstinted and accessi-
ble as canal water' (421). (Water in Kavanagh is usually redemptive at this
phase - in 'Is', water signifies religious purification, washing out 'Original
Sin', 154). The poem expresses religious aspirations (it is prayer-like), with
a fluent but occasionally informal voice, and is attentive to the quotidian
details around him (he would 'wallow in the habitual' - the word 'wallow'
suggests a careless, self-indulgent enjoyment of the world). He hears voices,
and sees grass, but the voices are 'eternal' and the grass 'fabulous'. This vision
of the eternal in nature, the intuition of redemption, and recognition of God's

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will - helps shape a pastoral meditation on the beneficent influences of


divinely-ordained nature. A bird building its nest is a servant to 'the Word'.
There is no note of disharmony because the world is appropriated into re-
ligious meditation. The sestet begins with a prayer to the 'unworn world'
(contrasting with the weary, worn-out speaker), to inspire him: 'Enrapture
me in a web / of fabulous grass and eternal cows by a beech'. Resembling
an invocation to the muse, this is a request for energy and language, that he
might pray 'with overflowing speech'.
The second canal bank sonnet, the self-elegiac 'Lines Written On a Seat
On the Grand Canal, Dublin', is a request to posterity to commemorate
him 'where there is water, / Canal water preferably'. That final phrase sug-
gests this is a love poem for the canal, a celebration of its healing powers,
almost as if its redemptive water is a holy well. The title draws attention
to the short lines of the poem, which contrast with the long, sprawling
lines of the previous sonnet; Quinn writes: '[W]here the first Canal son-
net pulsates with reburgeoning life, the second is an 'In Memoriam' (423).
Again, there is a playfulness with words ('stilly greeny') and neologism ('nia-
garously'); this suits the poem's sentiment, that 'Noone will speak in prose'.
The poem celebrates the beauty of a summer day, where canal waters pouring
over a lock roar for those 'who sit in the tremendous silence' ('tremendous'
bestows upon the moment heightened intensity). Taking the pastoral out of
the rural world, into the green spaces of the city allows Kavanagh to en-
visage an urban pastoral separated from agricultural labour. Rural labour
would always be tainted by the memory of the 'stony grey soil'. However,
he can attain to a pastoral voice near the canal, where the world of fruitless
labour is held at a distance, but the beneficence of the moments of vision in
Monaghan may be experienced anew. The emotions of this poem are linked
directly by the poet to the feelings of the farmer at Inniskeen, in his earliest
verse. In an essay, 'From Monaghan to the Grand Canal', he wrote that the
emotion in the Canal Bank Sonnets 'was the same emotion as I had known
when I stood on a sharp slope in Monaghan, where I imaginatively stand
now, looking across to Slieve Gullion and South Armagh' (Collected Pruse,
223).
The words 'Parnassian islands' help portray this haven as rooted in the
classical notion of poetic inspiration. In the first Canal Bank Sonnet, the
quotidian was numinous - the grass was 'fabulous'; here, the light is 'fan-
tastic'. 'Mythologies' - a tribute to the Celtic Revival - sail past on a canal
barge. Yet, the heroic world of Celtic mythology is banished, and, in a post-
heroic gesture, he desires no 'hero-courageous / Tomb'. Contrasting the sen-
timents of this poem with Yeats's advice to posterity in his late poem 'Under
Ben Bulben', Antoinette Quinn argues that Kavanagh is coming close

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to articulating a final poetic philosophy. In contrast with Yeats's poetic,


Kavanagh's 'Canal school of poetry will focus on the fantastic beauty of
an ordinary, unpopulated and unglamorous urban scene' (425). An affirma-
tive, loving, urban pastoral vision.
Again, many poems in Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems
introduce pastoral themes (sometimes with antipastoral elements), and lean
towards religious or mystical pastoral. The urban sonnets which begin the
volume introduce a theme of transformation which we hear in other poems,
and, in line with Kavanagh's parochial philosophy, they celebrate place as
hallowed ground, as do poems like 'Peace', 'Shancoduff, 'Kerr's Ass' and
'Epic'. 'Shancoduff with its bleak picture of sunless 'black hills' and desolate
'sleety winds', uses antipastoral imagery to express unbending loyalty to the
home ground, which ultimately conveys a sense that this rural backwater
contains all meaning for the speaker. 'Epic' has antipastoral energies which
lend force to the argument that home is 'important'. 'Kerr's Ass' transforms
the memory of rurality into the 'god of imaginative vision'. In its insistence
that 'God is down in the swamps and marshes', the religious pastoral lyric,
'The One' argues for a parochial aesthetic, valorising the most infertile places
(159). The long, third line of the poem is breathless and enthusiastic, in
response to the word 'Sensational', with which the line begins. There are
playful rhymes ('red/incred-'; 'marshes/catharsis'), evidence of a casual wit
not found in other poems, but in accordance with the ludic quality of the
Canal Bank Sonnets. The reference to 'sensational April' invokes a time of
regeneration, but the tone is very distant from the cruel springtime of Eliot's
The Waste Land, sometimes thought to be an influence. Kavanagh's waste
land is charged with religious presence, though it were 'A humble scene
in a backward place / Where noone important ever looked'. This place of
wild flowers and weeds is remote, but blessed. The poet is messenger of
the gods, revealing the ultimate truth that 'beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
God' breathed his love on the bogs. Overdone in its repetitions, the only
antipastoral coloring here might be the recognition that this backwater is
remote and humble, but it is never disgraced.

IV
Kavanagh is paradoxically the most uneven and one of the most influen-
tial Irish poets since Yeats. His early verse established him as a religious
pastoral lyricist, but he made his fame in the early 1940s, with his sceptical,
antipastoral anti-epic. The fact that this poem contained moments of lyric in-
tensity and fleeting mystical epiphanies, resembling the numinous visions of
his earlier pastoral lyrics, highlighted rather than detracted from the general

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antipastoral impulses of the poem. The Canal Bank Sonnets do offer so-
phisticated echoes of earlier poems, but are rooted in a beloved but adopted
place, with new emphasis on a radically-renewed selfhood. Terry Gifford has
written that certain poets - Stephen Duck, John Clare and Kavanagh-got ac-
cepted by the literary establishment of their day, and their antipastoralism
was pastoralised.17 This is not quite true of Kavanagh, since he pastoralised
himself; he explicitly rejected his major antipastoral poem as false, and much
of his later work is pastoral, despite a bracing and vigorous rebuff to Revival
modes, in a certain sense of the word. That is, he revives pastoral as an urban
genre associated not with artificial conventions but with redemptive, self-
renewing and religious energies. He also yoked it to his liberating parochial
aesthetic so that pastoral at its best could be a vehicle of self-affirmation for
the marginal and minor.
Because of his challenge to Revivalist pieties and iconoclastic treatment
of rural life, and because of his impact, as journalist, critic and poet, on
the Dublin literary world of his time, he has been influential for subsequent
poets, including John Montague, who wrote that Kavanagh 'liberated us into
ignorance', and Seamus Heaney, author of some of the finest critical writing
on Kavanagh to date. Other poets touched by his example include Eavan
Boland, Paul Durcan, Desmond Egan, Eamon Grennan, Michael Hartnett,
Brendan Kennelly and James Liddy. Modern Irish antipastoral and pastoral
are incomprehensible without an understanding of his achievement.

NOTES
1 Larry Morrow (The Bellman), 'Meet Mr. Patrick Kavanagh'. The Bell, 16, i
(April 1949), pp. 5-11. See Jonathan Allison, Patrick Kavanagh: A Reference Guide
(New York: G.K.Hall, 1996), p. 13.
2 Cited in Terry Gifford Pastoral (London and New York: Routledge, 1999),
p. 121.
3 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber and
Faber, 1980), p. 176.
4 On de Valera's Ireland in the 1930s and Kavanagh's Great Hunger, see R.F. Foster,
Modern Ireland 1600-1972, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp. 537-9.
5 Antoinette Quinn, 'Introduction'. Selected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh (London:
Penguin, 1996), xiv.
6 F. MacM, 'Two Poets'. Irish Press, 6 October 1937, p. 6. (See Allison, p. 2.).
7 Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1964), p. 3. All
subsequent references are given within the text.
8 Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Pruse (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967), p. 282.
All subsequent references are given within the text.
9 Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: Born-Again Romantic (Dublin: Gill &
Macmillan, 1991), p. 108.

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10 The Great Hunger was completed in October 1941, and an excerpt published as
'The Old Peasant' in Horizon 5, 25 (January) 1942. The first complete edition was
published by Cuala Press in April 1942, and it was later printed as the concluding
poem in A Soul for Sale. However, the poet omitted lines 9-32, section two, on
grounds of obscenity.
11 Each section is set in a particular month: section three in March, four in April, six
in May, section eight in July, but the eleventh ('A year passed') is in April again,
and the twelfth in February. The fourteenth and last scene witnesses 'the October
reality'.
12 'Author's Note', Collected Poems.
13 'Tang of Sloes', Saturday Review of Literature, 20 September 1947, p. 24.
(See Allison, p. 10.)
14 Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh, p. 254.
15 Ibid., p. 367.
16 Ibid., p. 421.
17 Gifford, Pastoral, p. 132.

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4
PETER MCDONALD

Louis MacNeice: irony and


responsibility

In an uncollected poem of 1995, 'MacNeice's London', Derek Mahon imag-


ines Louis MacNeice in wartime, in 'A bunker of civilised sound, / A BBC
studio':

Thirty years dead


I see your ghost, as the Blitz carooms overhead,
Dissolve into a smoke-ring, meditative,
Classic, outside time and space,
Alone with itself, in the presence of the nations,
Well-bred, dry, the voice
Of London, speaking of lost illusions.1

These lines capture, in a brilliant miniature, much of the complexity of Louis


MacNeice's cultural and historical situations. While the adjectives here -
'meditative', 'classic', 'alone', 'well-bred', 'dry' - seem to map out the dis-
tinctive qualities of the poet's voice, that voice is also working as 'the voice/
Of London' while it speaks from the wartime BBC to the world. Mahon's
final line-break allows the reader to sense the distance between the intimacy
and solitude of the poet and the prepared voice of the public writer: as 'the
voice' turns into 'the voice/ Of London', we feel a mild and complicating
shock of something 'outside time and space' that suddenly locates itself in a
specific moment and situation.
The resonance of a number of ironies is being relished in Mahon's lines,
not least that of 'the voice/ Of London' being spoken by an Irish poet. Of
course, Louis MacNeice was an Irish poet, and thought of himself as being
an Irish poet, from the beginning to the end of his writing career. Any doubts,
quibbles, or equivocations on that point are not MacNeice's, and they can
find little ground in the facts of his life and his writing. MacNeice was also
a poet who worked and wrote for much of his career in England, and whose

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writing often dwells on the England of his time, sometimes in extraordinary


and illuminating detail. The man who, as a broadcaster in wartime and
afterwards, was indeed in some senses 'the voice/ Of London' had already
brought the London of the year before the war to life, in his long poem
Autumn Journal (1939), with a brilliance and intensity unmatched even in
his own gifted generation of British writers. Later, MacNeice continued to
work largely from London as a broadcaster - a radio producer who was
also the prolific author of radio plays and other features - until his death
in 1963.
So, it is true that the poetic 'voice' of MacNeice is bound, in some respects,
to be one whose most personal turns are complemented by the awareness
of more public situations. If we look at his work as a whole (and it is a
large body of work for someone who died just short of 56 years of age:
thirteen volumes of poetry, three critical books, a volume of autobiography,
over 120 scripts for radio, and enough critical and journalistic writing to fill
two volumes in selection alone) we are presented with a number of seeming
contradictions. Here is, for example, a writer whose own early life provides
him with a series of recurring and compelling images that may suggest a
lifelong preoccupation with the self, while his subject matter is also - and
often in the same poems - the history of his own time or generation, or the
history of times remote from his own. Here, too, is a poet who appears to em-
brace an aesthetic of inclusive observation of the world, often in seemingly
journalistic turns of phrase and takes of detail, while remaining commit-
ted to an idea of poetry as parable-like, and mythic, in its essential bearing.
MacNeice is a poet given to classical allusion and generic resource; he is, also,
a poet whose language and diction are both contemporary and unaffected,
and whose range of reference embraces popular as much as high culture.
MacNeice is Irish, but capable of angry denunciation of the Ireland of his
time; he works as a broadcaster in wartime and post-war Britain, but is scorn-
ful of 'propaganda' in mass-communication, and celebrates idiosyncrasy and
independence. Like any Irish poet of the twentieth century, he feels himself in
W.B. Yeats's shadow; but where Yeats's imagination is proudly aristocratic in
its affiliations, MacNeice's is determinedly democratic. All these things con-
tribute to what we might mean by MacNeice's 'voice' as a poet, and are sub-
sumed in a more general distinction between 'irony' in that voice - the know-
ing, sometimes sceptical, haunted and understating qualities in MacNeice's
way of writing - and the voice's 'responsibility', its relation to the seriousness
of what it means. The 'lost illusions' mentioned in Derek Mahon's poem are
both personal and public: that is to say, they are both MacNeice's and our
own.

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MacNeice's life
Born in Belfast, Louis MacNeice in fact grew up in a seaside town to the north
of that city, in Carrickfergus, where his father was rector of the Anglican
church. The youngest of three children (one of whom suffered from Downs
Syndrome), MacNeice lost his mother at the age of five, and was educated
at schools in England, returning for holidays at Carrickfergus, and with his
family on trips to the West of Ireland. MacNeice left Marlborough School
in 1926 to become a student at Oxford, where he studied Greek, Latin and
Philosophy. While there, MacNeice met a number of lifelong friends, most
notably the young Auden, who was already hard at work as a rising poet, and
it was in these years as an undergraduate (1926-30) that MacNeice came to
realise that his own ambitions were primarily literary ones: he precociously
published a volume of poems (most of which he later dropped from his
oeuvre) entitled Blind Fireworks in 1929, and was already seen as a member
of a circle of young writers likely to come to prominence in the 1930s.
Towards the end of his time at Oxford, MacNeice met and fell in love
with Marie Ezra, and the two were married (after overcoming parental ob-
jections from both sides) just as MacNeice completed his final exams. As a
married man, MacNeice needed a career; and he was unusual amongst his
contemporaries in going straight from university into a lecturing post, in the
Department of Classics at Birmingham University. It was at Birmingham that
MacNeice came under the influence of E.R. Dodds, an Ulster-born Profes-
sor of Classics there, who had taken the considerable risk of offering a post
to a young man still waiting to graduate. Over the coming years, when he
worked with and lived close to Dodds, MacNeice began to write the poems
that would bring him to attention in the 1930s, as well as learning much
about a social context quite distinct from either the rectory-centred world
of his youth or the rarefied and over-aesthetic atmosphere of late 1920s
Oxford. It was at Birmingham in the early 1930s that MacNeice grew up -
and grew up into a political climate of crisis and foreboding that was to
intensify over the course of that decade. In domestic terms, however, life was
idyllic to almost a stifling degree: so, at any rate, MacNeice remembers these
years in The Strings Are False, the autobiographical work written (but not
published) in 1940/1. Not long after the birth of a son, Dan, in 1934, the
idyll came to a sudden end with Marie's decision to leave her husband and
child, and go to the USA with an American student and football-player. In the
complicated and sometimes chaotic emotional fallout from this, MacNeice
left Birmingham to live in London, where he took up another post in Classics
at Bedford College.

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By 1936, when MacNeice and his young son arrived in London, the literary
world was dominated by members of the so-called 'Auden group', including
poets like Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender. MacNeice, whose first ma-
ture volume, Poems, had been published by the prestigious house of Faber
and Faber in 1935 to warm reviews, moved immediately to the centre of
the metropolitan literary scene. By now, it was clear to MacNeice himself
that his heart did not lie in the necessarily dry expanses of classical schol-
arship; partly for this reason, the late 1930s were years of furious literary
productivity as MacNeice began writing a great deal of journalism and other
commercial material, along with his increasingly assured and original poetry:
two plays were produced in London by Rupert Doone's fashionable Group
Theatre; there were books on the Hebrides, and on zoos, as well as a book
on modern poetry, and trips to Spain before and during the Civil War, in
addition to the trip to Iceland in company with Auden, which resulted in
Letters From Iceland (1937). With the publication of his Faber volumes of
poetry The Earth Compels (1937) and Autumn Journal (1939), MacNeice
was widely regarded as among the foremost young British poets.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, however, MacNeice was on his
way to the USA, having given up his lecturing job in London for a temporary
post in the English Department of Cornell University. The reasons for this
decision were as much personal as professional, for MacNeice had fallen in
love with the American writer Eleanor Clarke, and hoped to use his time
in New York State to put their relationship on to a firmer footing. With
Europe at war, MacNeice was, like other British exiles (including Auden
and Christopher Isherwood), seen by some as having deserted his country;
he defended his position, and that of the other expatriates, but by 1940,
with the so-called 'Phoney' war at an end, he was beginning to feel anxious
that he was indeed missing out on an experience which he might have some
responsibility as a writer to encounter. Decisively, perhaps, the relationship
with Eleanor Clarke did not prosper. At the end of 1940, MacNeice made the
dangerous crossing of the Atlantic to return to England, where (having been
turned down on health grounds for service in the Royal Navy) he began to
work as a scriptwriter (and subsequently a producer) for the BBC, covering
London's experience of the Blitz, and learning the trade of radio-playwright -
a form of drama he found much more satisfying than his pre-war ventures
into writing for the stage. It was in London during the war that MacNeice
married Hedli Anderson, a singer who had worked with Benjamin Britten
and the Group Theatre.
In many ways, MacNeice later regarded London in the hectic (and often
dangerous) years of the war as the scene of the most creatively and humanly
intense period in his life. Certainly, he was not immune to a general feeling

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of anti-climax, and some degree of political disillusion, in the immediate


post-war years. Experiencing the war from London had, for a time at least,
sharpened MacNeice's feelings of scepticism about Ireland and its relation to
the modern world. On unpaid leave in the West of Ireland in 1945, he wrote
his best work for radio, the grim and powerful play The Dark Tower, which
makes a compelling parable out of the struggle between history's weight and
the individual's need for independence, along with a series of poems about
the West of Ireland that complement and answer his immediately pre-war
sequence, also set there, 'The Closing Album'. Although the wartime poem
'Neutrality', which condemns Eire's isolation from the European conflict,
is an emphatic and pained statement by MacNeice, it tells much less than
the whole story about the poet's complicated feelings; especially after his
father's death in 1942, MacNeice found himself thinking more frequently
about Ireland, and continued to visit the country and his friends and literary
colleagues there.
Through the 1940s and 1950s MacNeice lived the life of a busy writer
and broadcaster, working steadily on radio plays and features, literary jour-
nalism and, of course, more volumes of poetry. In these years, MacNeice's
critical stock began to decline somewhat, despite the regular publication of
new collections; in this respect, he shared in the fate of his other '1930s
poet' contemporaries, like Auden and Spender, whose work was by then
more often politely respected than eagerly anticipated. After publishing his
Collected Poems in 1949, MacNeice moved on to experiments in longer
poems, often deriving from his experience of broadcasting, which produced
Ten Burnt Offerings in 1952 and Autumn Sequel, a huge poem written in
terza rima, in 1954. Neither volume was a success, and by the mid-1950s
it seemed that the poet had written himself into a corner, producing long,
over-elaborated and sometimes dull pieces that paled beside his earlier work.
In 1957, with the publication of Visitations, MacNeice returned to shorter
poems, and with a new sense of energy, which provided the lyric momentum
for the two subsequent collections that were in fact to contain much of his
finest poetry, Solstices (1961) and The Burning Perch (1963).
MacNeice's last years were as productive as any other phase of his career,
and they saw the development of a new style and tone in his writing, in
which his poetic voice gained a new, and sometimes startling, resonance and
originality. Although the last two volumes seem inevitably like 'late' poetry,
it is easy to forget that these last poems were in fact written by a man in
his fifties: MacNeice's death in 1963, which resulted from the pneumonia
following a drenching trip to Yorkshire in search of accurate sound-effects
for a play about potholing, was cruelly early, in terms of literature as well
as life. It is clear now (though it might not have seemed quite so clear to the

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poet himself) that, in the early 1960s, MacNeice had begun a new phase of
his writing career, and had left behind the sometimes lacklustre work of the
previous decade. Had MacNeice lived to be seventy, we would now almost
certainly think of him as a senior contemporary of Heaney, Mahon, Longley
and Muldoon; and how the poems he did not live to write would have
absorbed the events of post-1968 Northern Ireland is one of those futile, but
irresistible, speculations to which the early deaths of poets inevitably draw
their readers.

Responsibilities
MacNeice came to maturity in a decade (the 1930s) when literature was often
thought to stand in a direct relation to events, both as a clear record and
as a part of the intellectual conduct of society. Famously, his contemporary
W.H. Auden moved, in the space of that decade, from the assertion that art's
job was to 'Make action urgent and its nature clear' to the concession that
'poetry makes nothing happen'.2 MacNeice's views took no such dramatic
swerves; but he was more consistent than Auden in his belief that literature
stood in some kind of accountable relation to the common life of its time.
Issues like these look, at first sight, political; but they are in fact matters of
aesthetic decision and commitment, and it is in this respect that MacNeice's
work has its distinctive originality and durability.
As a twentieth-century poet, and the more so as an Irish poet, MacNeice
was indebted in profound ways to the example of Yeats; additionally, and
just as inevitably, he engaged with Modernism as a poetic tendency. In a way,
MacNeice negotiates the influences of Yeats and T.S. Eliot, but he does this
less in terms of ideas or positions than of matters of writing: the register,
genres and techniques of poetry; the long poem and the lyric; the personal
and the impersonal voice, and the resonance of complexes of images and
sounds. In MacNeice's work, we encounter an enormously wide variety of
verse-forms, inherited and invented, and this technical resource is in the
cause of something other than just a display of virtuosity. In particular, the
poetry of MacNeice's last years seems to work its way into new and subtle
mutations of lyric forms and rhythms, escaping what MacNeice called 'the
"iambic" groove' of English metrical instinct.3 All this mastery of form,
however, works for a purpose in MacNeice, and is intended at least as a
means of speaking clearly, rather than in any code, private or public, of
aesthetic exclusiveness.
In 1938, around the time of composing Autumn Journal, MacNeice wrote
of how 'The poet is once again to make his response as a whole', 'react-
ing with both intelligence and emotion . . . to experiences'.4 There is a

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characteristic flatness about this, but it is also a manifesto which the poetry
makes good, and continues to make good in the succeeding decades. It is true
that MacNeice's public voice is at its most effective when least self-conscious;
some of the longer pieces in the later 1940s and the 1950s are both laboured
and lacking in colour, while the poet's commitment to some virtues, especially
those of plain-speaking and defence of liberal democracy, led to instances
of bathos and dullness in work like Autumn Sequel. However, this voice
was also capable of penetrating clarity, concision and originality, most of all
perhaps in the compressed, haunting and haunted poems of MacNeice's last
years.
In 'Budgie' (from the posthumously-published The Burning Perch), a caged
bird becomes the symbol for both the poet regarding, along with his readers,
a threatened and disintegrating world (one in more grave danger by the
early 1960s even than it had been in the 1930s), and for the self-regard of
the habitually preening artiste (which all true artists, however talented, are
in danger of becoming). The result is an extraordinary transformation of
Yeats's singing bird from the 'Byzantium' poems:
Budgie, can you see me* The radio telescope
Picks up a quite different signal, the human
Race recedes and dwindles, the giant
Reptiles cackle in their graves, the mountain
Gorillas exchange their final messages,
But the budgerigar was not born for nothing,
He stands at his post on the burning perch -
I twitter Am - and peeps like a television
Actor admiring himself in the monitor.5
MacNeice's imaginative daring is matched, in lines like these, with an ex-
traordinary technical control of phrase and timing. This control itself de-
pends on our sense of the writing as being in an original relation to straight-
forward speaking - to what MacNeice in the 1930s would have called
'communication' - without existing in a hermeneutic, essentially closed and
private, world of its own verbal procedures. In this sense, these lines do
indeed negotiate the influences of Yeats and Eliot, producing something that
is both its own memorable creation, and in compelling relation to the world
in which it is written and read.
MacNeice's sense of poetry's responsibilities included, of course, his feeling
for influence. A short poem from the mid-1950s is addressed 'To Posterity':
When the books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste

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They held for us for whom they were framed in words,


And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
The vistas that open here are relevant to MacNeice's large sense of what a
poetic voice must be in its 'public' aspect. We might notice that the ambitions
of the 1930s for direct communication have been tempered, and that the
future has become a worryingly unreadable kind of open book. But the
poem takes us, nevertheless, to the heart of the matter for MacNeice: words
themselves need to live, and life for the poet is always a life of words, and
in words. He is responsible for the future, in this sense at least, and the
integrity of language is not separable from other kinds of integrity. If this is
the lesson of much of MacNeice's best writing that speaks in a 'public' voice,
it is also the rule by which his more apparently 'personal' material has to
work. In the process, the poetry provides an example of 'a living language'
that can exercise the posterity represented by subsequent poets: in Northern
Irish poetry alone, the work of Mahon, Longley and Paul Muldoon has
responded at deep levels to MacNeice's artistic example and impetus. 'To
Posterity' is an artistic manifesto so tight-lipped that its ambition might be
missed at first glance; but it is no less serious, and no less consequential for
that.

Voice and irony


From almost the beginning, MacNeice's poetic voice struck readers as a
distinctive one. In defining this special quality, we need to engage with the
quality of stylistic suppleness and acuteness which makes itself felt in that
voice, and which it is tempting to characterise as 'ironic'. Of course, irony
is a term with a long critical history, but we should remember that it is also
a word that tends to carry other than strictly literary-critical connotations
in many contexts. To regard the world ironically is, after all, often taken to
mean something slightly distinct from taking the world seriously. This shows
through when we check dictionary definitions: 'A figure of speech in which
the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used'
(OED 1.a.); 'A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what
was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as
if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things' (OED 2.). Clearly, this
does not fit the voice we hear in MacNeice's poetry, as here in the opening
lines of 'Now that the shapes of mist', from 1936:
Now that the shapes of mist like hooded beggar-children
Slink quietly along the middle of the road

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And the lamps draw trails of milk in ponds of lustrous lead


I am decidedly pleased not to be dead.

The fourth line seems on first reading to be striking an attitude, affectedly


perhaps: 'decidedly' is the kind of intensifier not usually to be met with in a
serious context for being pleased with something - you might be decidedly
pleased to have received a birthday present, for instance, but hardly (say)
to have survived a major operation. Given this, the formulation 'decidedly
pleased not to be dead' starts to look very odd indeed, since its apparent in-
souciance would sit more comfortably with the pleasure normally expressed
as being alive. But MacNeice does not say he is glad to be alive; he tells
us he is pleased not to be dead. Considering this degree of strangeness in
expression, is 'decidedly pleased' an 'ironic' turn of phrase?
In fact, the poetry here makes sure that we do not decide such questions
in terms of isolated phrases, since MacNeice's line works as one part of a
larger rhythmic, rhyming structure. We hear 'I am decidedly pleased not
to be dead' immediately after the long line with which it rhymes, 'And the
lamps draw trails of milk in ponds of lustrous lead', and so its brevity is felt
as a kind of snapping-tight of the stanza, as the long vowels and crowded
stresses of one line ('lamps draw trails', 'ponds of lustrous lead') speed up
into rhythms of clipped conversation ('pleased not to be dead'). The 'irony',
then, is something working to make us aware of form, an acknowledgement
of the way a poem shapes and controls the order and sound of what it has
to say. The whole of this first stanza is concerned with perceiving visual
shapes, and the 'beggar-children' of the first line, who so much dominate
the stanza, are in fact twice-removed from direct presence there: once, in
their being 'hooded', and twice in their being in fact a simile for the 'shapes
of mist'.
The remainder of MacNeice's poem continues to make the most of in-
stabilities, as it becomes clearer that the road is being seen from a car, and
that the mist is part of a threatening night's weather. The poet braves this,
and braves too the possibilities of bathos or infelicity in the final line of his
second stanza:

Or when wet roads at night reflect the clutching


Importunate fingers of trees and windy shadows
Lunge and flounce on the windscreen as I drive
I am glad of the accident of being alive.

Avoiding an accident on the road, the poet celebrates the 'accident of be-
ing alive', bouncing his language in a way that reinforces the subtlety of
'decidedly pleased not to be dead'. Those 'beggar children' are still present

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in 'clutching/ Importunate fingers', and the distance between them and the
figure of the driving poet is one between death and life: the poet lives at their
expense. As the poem ends, we learn more about this ironic distance, and
learn in the process about the self-awareness this involves:
There are so many nights with stars or closely
Interleaved with battleship-grey or plum,
So many visitors whose Buddha-like palms are pressed
Against the windowpanes where people take their rest.
Whose favour now is yours to screen your sleep -
You need not hear the strings that are tuning for the dawn -
Mingling, my dear, your breath with the quiet breath
Of sleep whom the old writers called the brother of Death.
The elements and the night are still being figured as outsiders, beggars or
visitors, who crowd in upon the private space, but they allow the person
being addressed some respite, in the form of sleep, before they make their
final and unrefusable request. At the end of the poem, MacNeice finally
sounds the 'breath'/ 'Death' rhyme, but he allows death into the poem with its
literary history on view, so that the uneasy proximity between sleep and death
is something with a precedent in the works of 'the old writers'. We might
notice at the same time as we register this moment of literary distancing, that
MacNeice's final line-break - 'your breath with the quiet breath/ Of sleep' -
does not allow a speaking voice the time to pause for breath.
Irony, then, is really a technique of self-awareness for MacNeice in these
lines, rather than an effect of verbal 'mockery'. The particular case has a
more general bearing, for MacNeice's supposedly ironic writing has often
been held to be a sign of some more widespread, and perhaps fundamental,
position of disengagement on his part. This is the case, certainly, for a number
of MacNeice's critics, who have tended to see irony as a lack of serious
commitment. But it is because it is so seriously poetry that MacNeice's work
can appear deficient to those whose demands on verse have no room for the
complications of language, pitch, rhythm, figure, or rhyme. In poetry, and
especially in MacNeice's poetry, irony can never be separated from matters
of technique: to ask why something is said is also to ask how the poet says
it. Auden recognised this in MacNeice when he wrote, in 1939, of how the
'marriage of a wayward anarchist nature to a precise technique has been
happy; his nature prevents him from becoming academic and pedantic, his
technique from romantic excess'.6
A poet's voice is an amalgam of 'nature' and 'technique', and MacNeice's
particular pitch is one in which the technical precision and variety of his
metrical practice are informed by a presence and sensibility that seem always

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on the alert. 'Now that the shapes of mist' can be compared with a poem
from near the end of MacNeice's career, 'The Taxis' (1961), in which again
there is a running conceit of life as a car-journey, or a series of bought
rides. Now, however, MacNeice's formal self-awareness has become more
extreme, something that appears at first almost a casual matter of a throw-
away refrain:

In the first taxi he was alone tra-la,


No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence
But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance
As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.
In the second taxi he was alone tra-la
But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according
And the cabby from out his muffler said: 'Make sure
You have left nothing behind tra-la between you.'
In the third taxi he was alone tra-la
But the tip-up seats were down and there was an extra
Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd
Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.
As for the fourth taxi, he was alone
Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked
Through him and said: 'I can't tra-la well take
So many people, not to speak of the dog.'

Two elements develop in the course of the poem, and finally give it its shape,
both of them ironic in some of the more harsh senses of the word. First,
there is the recurring 'tra-la', a filler phrase along ballad lines perhaps, which
strays out of what seems its proper place at the ends of lines into the middle
('nothing behind tra-la between you', T can't tra-la well take/ So many peo-
ple'), so that we hear it as a strange blank, or a filling of time. Second, there
is the odd logic of the narrative through these four stanzas, as the subject is
accompanied by more and more people he cannot see. If we read the poem
as a miniature parable, it is an account of the way in which the individ-
ual accrues increasingly numerous company - present in memory - in being
conveyed through life, until the numbers grow impossible, and the journey
can no longer be made. In the poem's alarming world, what is present to
memory becomes prosaically present to the eye of a cabby, as a matter of
extra fares. What might in another context seem intimate and utterly indi-
vidual (that 'odd/ Scent', for example) is here only another commonplace,
and the subject for some gruff bad temper. Similarly, in another late poem
MacNeice has Charon, the ferryman over the Styx, tell would-be passengers

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that 'If you want to die you will have to pay for it' (Collected Poems, 530.)
Against this irony, MacNeice plays the recurring 'tra-la', in which the very
movement of the verse seems to break up, and we hear a blank as something
potentially threatening and incur si ve.
Like much of MacNeice's late poetry, 'The Taxis' has made irony into a
technique, rather than just a tone of voice or a pose of detachment. A great
many of the late poems show how the properties of poetry - its rhythms
and shapes - can be made to absorb and refigure the less reflective aspects of
language - its cliches and dead-ends - and so become charged with a strange
and unsettling energy. MacNeice himself saw this as a 'nightmare' aspect of
his work, and it is true that much of the writing in his last two collections
seems grimly braced against life's attritions, fears and catastrophes. In so far
as MacNeice's own life became more overcast in these late years, the condi-
tion of irony for which his verse found the technical means was something
he found himself living in, and (as it turned out) not living through. Here,
perhaps, we encounter what Mahon means by 'lost illusions' as an under-
tone in MacNeice's voice; here, too, the world of private disappointment,
guilt and dismay finds its expression - and transformation - in poetry.

Lost illusions
In the early 1940s, MacNeice's poem 'The Satirist' includes something close
to a self-portrait:
Who is that man with eyes like a lonely dog?
Lonely is right. He knows that he has missed
What others miss unconsciously.
The insistence on 'lonely' is in a context that disables any merely sentimental
reading, while the whole notion of missing things stretches from the missing
associated with personal loss to the kind of missing that is a missing out
on something. MacNeice's work as a whole spans a similar gap between
intimate losses and more public, shared experiences of history's passing. In
his long poem, Autumn Journal, MacNeice makes this gap vividly palpable.
The poem ranges from the day-to-day life and work of its author in the period
from August, 1938 until the New Year, as he goes to work in a London
visibly preparing itself for war, to sustained considerations of education,
philosophy, Ancient Greece, and the Munich crisis, and of personal memory
(schooldays, a broken marriage, love-affairs) as well as of Ireland. In this
largely autobiographical poem, MacNeice never lets his own life slip away
too far from the life of a particular time and situation; this is what he means
by calling Autumn Journal 'both a panorama and a confession of faith'.7

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The genre of a journal - a series of reports on life, with no overarching


'plot' to facilitate narrative or formal techniques of shaping the material - sets
MacNeice free from several of the difficulties inherent in writing 'political'
poetry. As the poet puts this in his prefatory note: 'It is in the nature of this
poem to be neither final nor balanced' (Collected Poems, 101). The verse
form itself, in which long and short lines alternate, but do not stick to any
predictably set lengths, and in which rhyme is the norm, but a rhyme-scheme
as such is seldom present, answers to the open-ended nature of MacNeice's
undertaking. Having said all this, we might still see something of a centre to
the wide and various panorama which Autumn Journal presents: this is the
notion of loss, and of the missing that follows loss. It is this which brings
together the 'public' and the 'private' in the poem: the historical events that
press most on the poem, which include the Munich Crisis and the perilous
condition of the threatened Spanish Republic, as well as an important by-
election in Oxford (fought on the issue of appeasement) are all situations
that spell out various kinds of defeat; personal losses are given almost as
much weight, whether they involve the loss of a wife or a lover, or even that
of a dog gone missing for a day, or whether they are both more general and
more perplexing, as in the loss of childhood, or of youthful enthusiasms, or
that of a homeland. Autumn Journal is an act of stocktaking on all these
kinds of loss, in which MacNeice's voice finds registers for both what he
calls the 'didactic' (describing the particulars of how things are) and the
'lyric' (making personal shapes and sense out of how things were, and how
they might be).
One entire section of Autumn Journal is given over to Ireland, and it sits
at the centre of the long poem as a meditation on the fate of political illu-
sions and dogmas, which MacNeice intends to cast a sombre shadow over the
English and European politics that dominate the rest of his poem. Again, this
is done first in personal terms, since the poet makes it clear that it is
his own childhood memories which fuel the meditation. As often in Mac-
Neice's poetry, these memories are rendered as sounds: 'the noise of shooting/
Starting in the evening at eight/ In Belfast in the York Street district', or 'the
voodoo of the Orange bands/ Drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster'.
As the poetry gathers momentum, MacNeice's voice moves emphatically
into a mode of denunciation, putting a curse on both Irish houses:
Up the Rebels, to Hell with the Pope,
And God save - as you prefer - the King or Ireland.
The land of scholars and saints:
Scholars and saints my eye, the land of ambush,
Purblind manifestoes, never-ending complaints,
The born martyr and the gallant ninny;

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The grocer drunk with the drum,


The land-owner shot in his bed, the angry voices
Piercing the broken fanlight in the slum,
The shawled woman weeping at the garish altar.
(Collected Poems, 132.)

Both 'traditions' in Irish politics have failed, and the force of MacNeice's
writing through this section of the poem is one that constructs a kind of
parallelism in denunciation: the poet is not so much even-handed as two-
fisted in his response. The pitch of this voice is one that gains energy from
the brutal stripping away of illusion and pretension; its condemnation of
'Kathaleen ni Houlihan' allows us to be touched - just for a moment - by
the apparent pathos of The shawled woman weeping at the garish altar',
but then lets us know how easy (and fatal) it is to wallow in such feelings.
Similarly, the male, Protestant icon takes a hammering, while permitting us -
again, just for an instant - to enjoy the misconceived historical glamour of
his 'tradition':

Drums on the haycock, drums on the harvest, black


Drums in the night shaking the windows:
King William is riding his white horse back
To the Boyne on a banner.
Thousands of banners, thousands of white
Horses, thousands of Williams
Waving thousands of swords and ready to fight
Till the blue sea turns to orange.

As section XVI progresses, we share both the possible intoxications of Irish


atavisms, and the sharp pangs of the contemporary hangovers they leave
behind; MacNeice's procedure builds to a climax of across-the-board de-
nunciation (T hate your grandiose airs,/ Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your
swagger,/ Your assumption that everyone cares/ Who is the king of your
castle'). The truth is, as the poet adds immediately, that 'Castles are out of
date', and this truth is something the reader of Autumn Journal has experi-
enced at MacNeice's first hand, in the panorama of loss, indifference, and
international wickedness which the poem so meticulously records. For Mac-
Neice in 1938, Ireland's collective imagination is living out a complete, and
disastrous, illusion: 'Let the round tower stand aloof, he writes savagely, 'In
a world of bursting mortar'.
What Ireland misses historically cannot be dissociated from MacNeice's
sense of what he misses in Ireland. This is a complex state of affairs, and not
one which a single poem can disentangle. In terms of the poet's own life, the

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scene of a profound early loss (that of his mother) is also a place to be revis-
ited with perpetually mixed feelings; Carrickfergus is remembered as both a
family home and a place of exile ('We were in our minds', MacNeice's sister
recalled, 'a West of Ireland family exiled from our homeland')8; Northern
Ireland is figured as somewhere very distinct from the West, in terms of
personal mythology as well as of politics and geography; and the pitched an-
titheses of Autumn journal are complicated increasingly by the competing
pulls of loss and affection. In 'The Strand' (1945), a poem written in mem-
ory of his father, MacNeice finds his most subtle and haunting image for the
mixture of alienation and belonging which he feels, in the recollection of his
father by the sea on Achill Island, 'Carrying his boots and paddling like a
child':

Sixty-odd years behind him and twelve before,


Eyeing the flange of steel in the turning belt of brine
It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore
And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections - and no sign
Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.

The poem balances those 'bright reflections' against the erasing inevitability
of 'the floor-mop of the foam', the vividness of recollection (and, by im-
plication, loving recollection) against the flat facts of leaving and absence.
Many of MacNeice's poems about Ireland are about light, and light's abil-
ity to transform or withdraw: 'An Irish landscape', he wrote, 'is capable of
pantomimic transformation scenes; one moment it will be desolate, dead,
unrelieved monotone, the next it will be an indescribably shifting pattern of
prismatic light'.9 Although in 'The Strand' 'no sign/remains', it is the poem
which inscribes the 'visitors' on this western landscape: MacNeice's writing
here manages to concede the ephemerality of belonging at the same time as
it celebrates its reality.
'Visitors' is, of course, a word heavy with implication, for however at
home they may feel, these holidaymakers are also away from home. But
from almost the beginning, MacNeice's poetry returns to images of homes, of
houses and other dwelling-places, as the scenes of alienation and sometimes
even dread. In his later poetry especially, MacNeice visits these strange, often
haunted properties, which seem to contain much of his own childhood and
adult life. 'Selva Oscura' (whose title alludes to the dark wood in which
Dante finds himself, in mid-life, at the beginning of the Divine Comedy)
begins by saying that 'A life can be haunted by those who were never there/

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If there was where they were missed', and then goes on, in its second stanza,
to re-shape and complicate this claim:

A life can be haunted by what it never was


If that were merely glimpsed. Lost in the maze
That means yourself and never out of the wood
These days, though lost, will be all your days;
Life, if you leave it, must be left for good.

MacNeice's sense of his own life as something 'haunted/ By what it never


was' certainly includes his feelings for and about Ireland. It is easy, and
it has been too tempting over the years, to see this as symptomatic of a
personality split in terms of its nationality, and fated by class and religion to
be a perpetual tourist in a land to which it can never properly belong. But this
is an oversimplification which MacNeice's poetry resists. The complexities of
'home' are certainly intended by MacNeice to be more than merely personal
in their application, however intimate may be the sources of their images and
recurring motifs. As far as Ireland is concerned, the poet's acute feeling for
the ambiguities of belonging, the difficulties and awkwardnesses of leaving
and returning, and the allures and liabilities of a tangled history, are not
without their relevance for the too clear-cut schemes of 'Irishness' that crop
up in a great deal of cultural and political discussion. Here as elsewhere,
the poet's instinct for lost illusions seems richer and more fruitful than the
continued promotion of those illusions.
In contemporary criticism, MacNeice remains a name to divide Irish crit-
ics. For some, he is still not quite 'Irish' enough, or under suspicion on
account of the supposed allegiances of his modern advocates. It would be
difficult, on the other hand, to find many poets (Irish or British) for whom
such suspicions are meaningful, and MacNeice's work looks much more se-
curely established now, in canonical terms, than it did at the time of his
death. The poet's significance in contemporary poetry is more to do with
the resources, complexity and memorability of his voice than it is with the
endlessly-debatable definitions or appropriations of his nationality. In this
respect, he is a central and indispensable presence, and remains one of the
most exhilarating, haunting and substantial Irish poets since Yeats.

NOTES
1 Derek Mahon, 'MacNeice's London', Poetry (Chicago), vol. 167, no. 1-2 (October
i995)>P- 36-
2 W.H. Auden, 'August for the people and their favourite islands' (1935), and 'In
Memory of W.B. Yeats's (1939), The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic
Writings ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), pp. 157, 242.

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3 'I notice that many of the poems here have been trying to get out of the "iambic"
groove which we were all born into.' 'Louis MacNeice writes . . . [on The Burning
Perch]\ Poetry Book Society Bulletin 38 (Sept. 1963), repr. in Alan Heuser (ed.),
Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987),
p. 247.
4 Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1938), pp. 29-30.
5 Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems ed. E.R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber,
1966), p. 539. Henceforth cited in the text as Collected Poems.
6 W.H. Auden, 'Louis MacNeice', in We Moderns: Gotham Book Mart 1920-1940
(New York: Gotham Book Mart, n.d. [1939]), p. 48; repr. in Edward Mendelson
(ed.), W.H. Auden: Prose Volume II1939-1948 (London: Faber and Faber, 2002),
P- 35-
7 Louis MacNeice, letter to T.S. Eliot, 22 Nov. 1938, quoted in Robyn Marsack, The
Cave of Making: The Poetry of Louis MacNeice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982),
P-43-
8 Elizabeth Nicholson, Trees were green', in Terence Brown and Alec Reid (eds.),
Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974),
p. 217.
9 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry ofW.B. Yeats (1941), (2nd edn. London: Faber and
Faber, 1967), p. 50.

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The Irish modernists and their legacy

Modernism and Ireland


'Dublin Modernism? The term has a cheeky disregard of its absurdly obvious
self-cancelling simplicity' (Hugh Maxton, The Puzzle Tree Ascendant)1

Notwithstanding Joyce's representation of the Irish capital in Ulysses and


Finnegans Wake, Dublin is not generally perceived as having been a vibrantly
productive location of avant-garde experimentation, as were Paris, Berlin,
London and New York. While the Irish Literary Revival is arguably a strand
in the knotted skein of early modernism, in the eyes of writers as dissimilar
as Thomas MacDonagh and Samuel Beckett its Celticism appeared remote
from the dissonant tones and epistemological preoccupations of the histori-
cal avant-garde.2 In Literature in Ireland (1916), MacDonagh had proposed
that it was not the Revival's 'Celtic Note', but poetry written in the 'Irish
Mode' - a style that preserved in English some of the sound-patterns of Gaelic
verse - that was to some extent comparable in its disjunctive effects to Ital-
ian Futurism. In the light of this thesis, MacDonagh's translations might be
profitably read alongside those of Ezra Pound - an admirer of Literature in
Ireland - whose revolutionary 'translations' from Chinese poetry, Cathay,
had appeared the year before MacDonagh's critical book. But MacDonagh's
poetic and critical career was brutally truncated in 1916, when he was exe-
cuted for his part in the Easter Rising; and it was to be in the poetry of his
successor as lecturer in English at University College Dublin, Austin Clarke,
that the Irish Mode was most rewardingly developed during the 1920s.
Clarke's striking defamiliarisation of the English-language lyric in Pilgrim-
age and Other Poems (1929) bears some resemblance to Hugh MacDiarmid's
contemporaneous experiments in Synthetic Scots in Sangschaw (1925) and
Penny Wheep (1926). However, in contrast to the Scottish poet, Clarke main-
tained throughout this decade and the next a frosty antipathy towards lit-
erary modernism, especially the poetry of Pound. The antinomy in Clarke's
thinking at this date between cultural nationalism and modernist poetics

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simply had not existed for older militant Republican poets such as Mac-
Donagh and Joseph Campbell. Praised in the Egoist by T.S. Eliot,3 the free
verse of Campbell's Earth ofCualann (1917) fruitfully employs Imagist tech-
niques that the Ulsterman had encountered in avant-garde circles in London
in the first decade of the century, to which are conjoined assonantal
patterns imitated from Gaelic models. Campbell's work is admittedly mild
fare besides that of F.T. Marinetti or Wyndham Lewis's Blast; nevertheless
it exemplifies the fusion of nationalist politics and experimental poetics that
had marked the pre-war European avant-garde.4
Clarke acknowledged this dimension to Campbell's poetry in the early
1960s (by which date he had made a rapprochement with Pound), but
he continued to conceive of modernism as an international, transcultural
phenomenon, and thus bereft of a fructifying relationship with region or
nation. In this respect, his thinking was by and large faithful to the self-
representation of modernist literature and art in Ireland between the wars.
In the visual arts, the enthusiastic response made by Evie Hone and Mainie
Jellet, among others, to Cubism in the 1920s constituted an allegiance to 'the
Modern Movement', which, though centred in Paris, transcended national
boundaries. (In later life, however, Jellett would increasingly press home
the affinity between Celtic art and modern abstraction.) In a more complex
manner, Flann O'Brien's novels, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and The Third
Policeman (written by 1940), as J.C.C. Mays has argued, parodically emulate
modernist devices in an overdetermined riposte to the example of Joyce's
later fiction and the 'pretensions of international modernism'.5 In this re-
spect, the early poetry and fiction of Samuel Beckett - also influenced by
Joyce - might be read as the reverse of O'Brien's hilariously purgative en-
gagement with high modernism (the latter's project culminating in the doubt
surrounding Joyce's authorship of Ulysses and the Wake in The Dalkey
Archive [1964]).
Conditioned by Anglo-American and European modernism, Beckett's for-
mative avant-gardism is squarely set against the nationalism of those Irish
poets he derisively described as 'delivering with the altitudinous compla-
cency of the Victorian Gael the Ossianic goods'.6 This interest in poetic
modes distinct from both those of the Celtic Twilight and the more ro-
bust, folkloric forms exploited by J.M. Synge and others, was one shared by
Beckett's acquaintances, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin. In the inter-war pe-
riod, only Beckett's friend and confidant, Thomas MacGreevy (whose Poems
was published in 1934), attempted to conjoin nationalist politics and a po-
etic conditioned in part by the examples of Eliot, Joyce and the surrealists.
But Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s was an unpropitious locale for poets like
MacGreevy and Beckett. The introspective literary scene of the Free State

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was understandably largely absorbed in adjusting to the often disheartening


realities of independence, as shown in the commitment by many to what were
essentially mimetic modes of writing - the short stories of Sean O'Faolain
and Frank O'Connor and, in the war years, Patrick Kavanagh's The Great
Hunger (1942). As Terence Brown gloomily observes, 'It was as if the chal-
lenge to realism effected by both the Revival writers and the modernist move-
ment had not taken place'.7

Irish poetic modernism since the 1930s


During the 1930s, Denis Devlin viewed the Irish Mode of Clarke and F.R.
Higgins with contempt. His first publication, Poems (1930) - with Brian
Coffey - appeared in the same year as Samuel Beckett's Whoroscope and, like
Beckett's poem, is characterised by disjunctive poetic procedures. Beckett's
1934 appraisal of 'Recent Irish Poetry' for the Bookman emphasised the
importance of the French Surrealists and Eliot to Devlin's early poetry. The
essay situates Devlin and Coffey as members of a 'nucleus' of Irish modernist
poetry opposed to the ruralism and cultural nationalism of those Irish poets
dubbed - and damned - by Beckett as 'the antiquarians'. Beckett astutely
singled out for especial praise Devlin's 'Est Prodest', a poem which frantically
probes for religious certainty in the midst of the political and economic
disarray of the 1930s. The titular allusion to Horace's dictum that poetry
exists in order to be beneficial is a pointer to Devlin's anxious preoccupation
with justice in many of the poems collected in Intercessions (1937); and in
this respect his early poetry, while more surrealist than engaged, is coloured
by the debate over the nature of 'committed' literature central to this decade.
The dream-logic of the longest poem collected in Intercessions, 'Com-
munication from the Eiffel Tower', for instance, owes much to the poetic
procedures of Andre Breton; yet its deployment of a central Futurist icon
of technological modernity is in the service of a critique of totalitarianism
not unrelated to that of the pylon-poetry of Devlin's British contemporaries,
W.H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender. In the course of Devlin's
poem, the identity of the persona leaches into that of Francois-Noel Babeuf,
the French Revolutionary, whose radical egalitarianism is brought to bear
upon the racist ideas of the French ethnologist Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau.
The topicality of the latter's racial theories are brought home to the reader
through the Dali-like transformation of de Gobineau into the Germanic
'Gobethau'; the Frenchman's Essai sur Vinegalite des races humaines melting
and mutating into contemporary fascist notions of Aryan supremacy.8
Devlin's poetry of the 1940s - collected with earlier pieces in Lough Derg
and Other Poems (1946) - continues to demonstrate his intense concern for

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the human detritus of a world in which, with the Second World War, 'mul-
lioned Europe [is] shattered' ('Lough Derg'; Poems, 132), and to whom a
Pascalian God remains indifferent. Formally, the poems of this period, and
for the remainder of his career, have largely dispensed with the heady avant-
garde mannerisms of Devlin's previous work. In their place, one finds in the
main symbolic, densely-patterned poems in various stanzaic forms which,
recalling the example of T.S. Eliot in Poems (1920) and Hart Crane, accord
with the poetic principles laid down by the American New Criticism. Many
of Devlin's poems of this period were published in New Critical journals,
including the Southern Review and the Sewanee Review; and following his
diplomatic posting to New York in 1939 and Washington in 1940, as a mem-
ber of Ireland's Department of External Affairs, Devlin formed friendships
with the influential poet-critics Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren (who
were to edit a Selected Poems in 1963, after Devlin's death).
The New Critical stand-alone quality of these poems is at one with the
metaphysical alienation experienced by Devlin's personae in such notable
works as 'Lough Derg' and 'Jansenist Journey'. A similar predicament con-
fronts the speakers of his love poetry, the concerns of which - after the
example of San Juan de la Cruz - overlap with those of his religious poetry.
The erotic poems frequently address an absent beloved, whose status is more
the product of the desiring male poet's imagination than that of a referential
woman, and whose potential to allay the lover's solitariness is, therefore,
highly problematic: they are consoling images, linguistic constructs pitted
against existential privation. In 'Farewell and Good', to take a representa-
tive instance, the speaker is forced to acknowledge the fact that 'She I loved
so much will not appear again', except in imaginary form, as the poet 'in
phantasms of sleep assembles] her form' (Poems, 213). But such an idealised
love-object is necessarily a wish-fulfilling poetic construct, and thus meagre
compensation for the literal, and now lost, object of desire.
In Devlin's late masterpiece, The Heavenly Foreigner (first published in
1950, and subsequently revised), the sequestered self of the love poems
is equally the Jansenist subject of his religious lyrics. Based in part on
Devlin's reading of Maurice Sceve's canzonerie of love poems Delie (1544),
and drawing upon Occitan poetry of fin3amor, The Heavenly Foreigner is
constructed around memories of a lover in whose finite beauty the speaker
hopes to discern the atemporal deity of the title. The woman is a variation
on the dompna soiseubuda ('composite lady') of the pro venial poet, Bertran
de Born: an idealised, recomposed figure, around whom the male weaves
imaginative conjectures, making her 'his emblem, / Making her the abso-
lute woman of a moment' (Poems, z66). Yet, in the process of idealising
the female, her sentient being vanishes, and with her recedes any hope

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of grasping the essence of the Heavenly Foreigner. For the poem's lushly
metaphorical argument entails that the images denoting the woman con-
stitute a fetishistic symbolism - 'How she stood, hypothetical-eyed and
metaphor-breasted', exclaims the persona, 'Weaving my vision out of my
sight', to leave but 'a light smoke in my hands' (Poems, 273).
Beckett's Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935) also draws upon the
poetry of the troubadours - the titles of over half of the volume's contents
are proven^al poetic forms - and the collection as a whole is coloured, as
Lawrence E. Harvey suggests, by amour lointain, that is, desire unrequited
and its ensuing anguish and pain.9 Beckett's variation on the Occitan dawn
song, 'Alba', moulds the subgenre's concentration on the torment of lovers'
parting to metaphysical ends. The Alba is a character in Beckett's youthful
Dream of Fair to Middling Women (written 1932) and More Pricks than
Kicks (1934); in the poem - as in the prose - her 'beauty' is a 'statement of
itself drawn across the tempest of emblems';10 in other words, she eschews
the emblematic and 'metaphor-breasted' nature of women in Devlin's po-
etry. This is at one with the poem's refusal to entertain her as a spiritually
redemptive Beatrice figure. The literal dawn ushers in a metaphorical dark-
ness in which the persona, who corresponds to the prose's Belacqua, submits
to existence shorn of the illumination of revelation: 'there is no sun and no
unveiling' (Poems, 15).
The relentlessly paratactic structures and, in Patricia Coughlan's words,
'too fully furnished'11 quality of Beckett's early poems gives way, with the
turn to French, to an enabling austerity, to haunting cadences free from the
bulgingly allusive (both literary and autobiographical) content and staccato
rhythms of Echo's Bones and related poems. While the speakers of a num-
ber of the earlier poems misanthropically perambulate through cityscapes
(Dublin, London) transmogrified by Dante, the persona of ije suis ce cours
de sable qui glisse' threads his course, in Beckett's translation, 'between the
shingle and the dune'. The shoreline provides a powerfully evocative ob-
jective correlative for the speaker's liminal condition, 'treading these long
shifting thresholds' (Poems, 59). His desire to 'live the space of a door / that
opens and shuts' is, it would appear, a death-wish, the condition of non-being
preferable to that monadic existence which 6que ferais-je sans ce monde"
describes as 'peering out of my deadlight [mon hublot\ at 'the living / in
a convulsive space' (Poems, 61).
The 'espace pantin' into which Beckett gazes is, in the words of his 'Recent
Irish Poetry', 'the space that intervenes between [the poet] and the world of
objects' (Disjecta, 70). Beckett maintains that a 'rupture of the lines of com-
munication' has occurred, a crisis in representation or 'breakdown of the ob-
ject' to which the 'antiquarians' such as Clarke and Higgins appear oblivious,

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but one recognised by MacGreevy, Devlin and Coffey. Like Beckett's Whoro-
scope, Coffey's Three Poems (1933) is indebted to The Waste Land rather
than to recent Irish poetry; but, whereas Beckett's poem is, on one of its
levels, a successful pastiche of Eliot's annotated pocket epic, Coffey's chap-
book is merely derivative. By way of contrast, his 1938 lyric sequence, Third
Person, explores the complexity of human and divine love in a style utterly
Coffey's own, and introduces the richly ambiguous texture, and hypnotic
rhythms, central to his mature poetry. Third Person also demonstrates the
importance to Coffey of Thomism, and the late 1930s would see him at the
Institut Catholique de Paris, working under the Neo-Thomist philosopher,
Jacques Maritain, research which would bear fruit in his doctoral thesis on
the idea of order in the thought of Aquinas (presented in 1947). Whether
Maritain's speculations on the difficulty for the artist in conjoining Catholi-
cism and modernism had any impact on Coffey is difficult to ascertain, but
Coffey ceased publishing poetry (though not philosophical papers and re-
views in The Modern Schoolman) at the end of the 1930s. He returned to
print at the beginning of the 1960s with a number of poems published in
the University Review (Dublin), including Missouri Sequence (1962), which
he had begun composing nearly a decade before. The composition of Mis-
souri Sequence overlaps with Coffey's work on his translation of Stephane
Mallarme's Un Coup de des, which, as Dice Thrown Never Will Annul
Chance, was published in 1965. Donal Moriarty has persuasively argued that
Coffey's translation of Mallarme's poem should be read as a reply to the
French poet's original text, rather than simply its rendering into English.12
In this respect, Dice Thrown dovetails with Missouri Sequence, some of the
preoccupations of which can be read as a Thomistic rejoinder to aspects of
Mallarme's atheist poetic.
Subsequent to Missouri Sequence, Coffey published Advent (1975), a long
poem that recalls Third Person in its reflections on God and love, but which
extends its speculations into the fields of beauty, ethics and environmental
issues, to name but a few. Advent's is a large canvas; but linking its many
concerns is an emphasis on humanity's existential plight, this universal given
grounded throughout the sequence in the particularities of the poet's life
(including the death of his mother and one of his sons). Death of Hektor
(1979) reflects upon Homer's treatment of the Trojan hero, and upon the
heroism of war in general, in the sobering light of the potential for nuclear
conflict at the time of its writing. Like Advent, the later sequence develops its
case not through logical argument, but through an associational accretion
of images and motifs. Both sequences deploy remarkably various rhythmic
units, in contrast to the conversational tone of Missouri Sequence; and, in
a fashion reminiscent of Un Coup de des, make use of typographical layout

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to underscore their semantic content. The 'visuality' of these two poems is a


feature they share with other poems by Coffey, some of which have a concrete
poetic form, while others, such as Leo (1968), are the fruit of collaboration
with visual artists.
The critique of patriarchal aggression mounted in Death ofHektor chimes
with Sheila Wingfield's preoccupation in Beat Drum, Beat Heart (1946) with
the violence of warfare, though Wingfield's poem, unlike Coffey's, counter-
points male brutality with an exploration of the ferocity that subtends female
sexual desire. In its focus on the universal human impulses underpinning the
particular circumstances of love and war, Wingfield's long poem has points of
resemblance to H.D.'s Trilogy and the principal work of the neglected Welsh
modernist Lynette Roberts, Gods with Stainless Ears (1952). Wingfield's se-
quence, in contrast to H.D.'s and Roberts's, was composed largely before,
rather than during, the Second World War; and the poem strikes a recognis-
ably 'Thirties' note in its apocalyptic forebodings, ambivalently censuring
the vicissitudes of war and love while embracing the redemptive potential of
martial and sexual immolation. Despite Wingfield's admiration for Orlando
and The Common Reader, the sexual politics of the final two sections of
the poem are closer to those of D.H. Lawrence than Virginia Woolf (the
penultimate part is perhaps revealingly entitled 'Women in Love'), as the
final female persona seeks subjugation by a male lover, beseeching him to
'Reflood the desolate ebb: / Renew me, make me whole'.13 Such Lawren-
tian life-affirming rhetoric conjoins an urgent topicality reminiscent of Louis
MacNeice's Autumn Journal (Wingfield refers to the Spanish Civil War and
the Long March, among other contemporaneous events); but the poem's rep-
resentation of history looks back more to the example of The Waste Land in
its temporal concatenations, as well as in its deployment of a welter of male
and female speakers.
That said, Beat Drum, Beat Heart (and Wingfield's oeuvre as a whole)
eschews the disjunctions of Eliot's 1922 poetic collage; rather, its various
stanzaic and free verse forms are juxtaposed in a manner resembling that of
the less discordant transitions of Four Quartets. Wingfield, after all, believed
that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake constituted a literary impasse rather than
an enabling revolution of the word, a view at one with the misgivings of
her admired Woolf over the merit of Joyce's later work.14 In its tangential
relationship with high modernism, Wingfield's work contrasts with that of
Eugene R. Watters, whose major poem in English, The Week-End ofDermot
and Grace (1964), takes its formal bearings from both the elliptical structure
of The Waste Land and the compacted linguistic brio of Ulysses, while its
delight in homonyms is clearly indebted to the Wake. Watters's poem, like
its modernist precursors, shows what Eliot famously discerned in Ulysses: a

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'mythical method' 15 by means of which the poem's overt narrative of a cou-


ple's amorous escapade, in flight from a Dublin employer for the pleasures
of the seaside resort of Castlefinnerty, is shaped by the legendary pursuit of
Diarmuid and Grainne by Fionn. The poem's absorption of Eliot and Joyce
brings to mind MacGreevy's most ambitious poem, Cron Trdth na nDeithe
(Twilight of the Gods', 1929), the ruptured narrative of which is comprised
out of the shards of its persona's perceptions of, and reflections on, the
Irish Free State in the aftermath of both the Civil War and the Great War.
Watters's poem is also conditioned by warfare, though of a more remote
kind: set in August 1945, Hiroshima casts its horrendous pall over the lovers'
jaunt. John Goodby has adroitly noted that Hiroshima 'represents a crisis
not just for Dermot but of human self-understanding', the nuclear confla-
gration constituting 'a crisis of representation, of language' in the poem. 16
In Cron Trdth na nDeithe, conflict in Ireland and Europe exerts a similar
pressure on MacGreevy (an Irish nationalist who had served as a combat-
ant on the Western Front). The carnage of the trenches compounded with
the Civil War's internecine strife shatter MacGreevy's persona's attempts
to totalise or order his experiences into any comprehensive or meaningful
pattern - 'Remember Belgium! / You cannot pick up the / Pieces'.17 So too, in
The Week-End, Watters's contrapuntal poetic - in which myth counterpoints
contemporary existence - threatens to deconstruct, as the discordant reality
of nuclear annihilation jars the endlessly cyclical vegetation myths on which
the poem is premised: 'Hero. / He Rose? / Hiroshima'. 18 The fertility myths
in the poem (derived from The Golden Bough by way of Eliot) represent
the continuity of humanity, its death and rebirth, figured forth in the slaying
of the 'Hero', Dermot, in a train crash towards the beginning of the poem.
The remainder of the poem comprises the protagonist's disintegrating con-
sciousness, a narrative strategy which, in the context of Irish poetry, might
be seen to foreshadow that of Paul Muldoon's 'Madoc', in which the bulk of
the poem is a retinal scan of the dying character, South. In The Week-End,
the technique accounts for the poem's disorientating shift from a basically
'realist' opening to an increasingly phantasmagoric purview, the tenor of
which is the possibility of Dermot's rebirth - and, by extension, the future of
humanity - a resurrection which has been thrown into question ('He Rose?')
in the atomic age.
Nevertheless, Watters's poem ends with the cycle of life reasserting itself,
as, like the Wake's crucified Shaun, Dermot is reborn 'into birth's wounds'
[Week-End, 44). In Joyce's text, this 'Surrection' of Earwicker is punnin-
gly - and ironically - identified with the 1916 insurrection of 'Eireweeker'
(the risen son/sun of this Easter week is 'Sonne feine' or Sinn Fein). 19 It is
tempting - and early appraisals of the poem were quick to succumb - to

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see in The Week-End's occasional references to the Easter Rising and its
framing allusions to the Crucifixion a similar conflation of nationalist and
metaphysical events. But Dermot's 'sacrifice' is only tangentially linked to
national struggle. Both the Emergency and the A-Bomb lie between Joyce's
last work and Watters's Cold War pocket-epic. In Dermot's prolonged bat-
tle with Thanatos, the latter work shows its cognisance of an irrevocably
changed historical conjuncture.
The Week-End was published two years before the Republic of Ireland
celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, one year after which
Thomas Kinsella's jaundiced anatomy of 'THE NEW IRELAND', Night-
walker, appeared.20 If Watters sees the date of Hiroshima's bombing as
of more import to the future of post-war Ireland than that of 1916, the
Holocaust provides Kinsella with a benchmark of depravity against which
the ideals of the Irish Republic have to be measured. In this respect, Night-
walker, like his 1962 poem, 'Downstream', looks aghast at 'the European
pit' of the recent past from the vantage-point of one who grew up in the war's
shadow (Poems, 49). But, whereas the earlier poem had been primarily con-
cerned with the possibility of art after Auschwitz, Nightwalker 'gropes for
structure' in the political as well as the aesthetic realm (Poems, j6). The later
poem also marks the point in Kinsella's career at which he jettisons tradi-
tional verse-forms, such as the terza rima of 'Downstream' and the blank
verse of 'A Country Walk', another early probing into Irish history.
The mordant Nightwalker instead refracts recent Irish history through the
prism of a poetic form the antecedent of which is The Waste Land, and, in
this respect, its fragmentary form resembles that of MacGreevy's Cron Trdth
na nDeithe. Kinsella's poem, like The Week-End, also has an intertextual re-
lationship with the Wake, and the conclusion to Kinsella's poem can be
read as a bleak and arid revision of the overflowing ebullience ('a long
the ... riverrun', Wake, 628, 3) with which Joyce's text wheels back to its fluid
beginnings. 'A true desert. . . /1 think / This is the Sea of Disappointment',
muses Kinsella's persona, the parched lunar landscape providing a cruel sum-
mary image of the inadequacies of post-revolutionary Ireland charted in the
course of the poem (Poems, 84). Written in the wake of the expansionist eco-
nomic reforms inaugurated by the First Secretary at the Irish Department of
Finance, T.K. Whitaker - for whom Kinsella had served as private secretary -
Nightwalker is, on one level, a baroque critique of the compromises and op-
portunism attendant upon the drive for 'Productive Investment' from abroad
(Poems, 78). Its satirical devices include outright Juvenalian scorn, oblique
political allegory, and a nightmarishly surreal vision, quoting the Wake,
in which the apparently emblematic figure of the controversial minister
Charles Haughey, later scandal-ridden Taoiseach, 'On his big white harse',

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leads a 'pack of lickspittles' to hunt (Poems, 80-81). This topical dimension


to the poem has affinities with the satires Clarke was concurrently directing
against both Church and State. But Kinsella's poem is both less parochial
and less impotently splenetic than many of Clarke's in that its misanthropy
has an existential as much as a local application: the Dublin cityscape is a
'Necropolis' in which the Nightwalker is 'Patrolling the hive of his brain',
his restless peregrinations propelled by the desire to elicit order from the
'shambles' of contingent experience (Poems, 77, 76).
The dual focus of Nightwalker, as it looks for meaningful structures in
what it calls 'the madness without, / The madness within', looks forward
to the Janus-faced nature of Kinsella's subsequent poetry (Poems, 76). In
his disillusioned response to the killings in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972,
Butcher's Dozen (1972), and his elegy for John F. Kennedy, The Good Fight
(1973), Kinsella flays the skin of idealism and justice from the body politic.
The extended metaphor of A Technical Supplement (1976) identifies ratio-
nality with a shambles or slaughterhouse, one in which the poet's own rage
for order is itself a rendering of the carcass of his subject matter. In sequences
such as Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972) and One (1974), Kinsella
looks to the madness within, developing a complex Jungian psychodrama,
at the heart of which is an archetypal journey in search of an enlarged, indi-
viduated selfhood. Though this dimension to his poetry is thematically com-
parable to Ted Hughes's internalised quest-romances of the 1970s, Crow,
Gaudete and Cave Birds, the structure of Kinsella's interwoven sequences
is closer to that of another poetic enterprise inspired by Jung and informed
by the procedures of Pound and William Carlos Williams, The Maximus
Poems of Charles Olson. Like Olson, Kinsella brings together autobiograph-
ical, historical and mythological materials with a minimum of connective
tissue. Thus, in Notes from the Land of the Dead, ancestors alarmingly mu-
tate into archetypes, as fearful grandmothers become avatars of the male
psyche's anima, while, in One, reminiscences of family history are inter-
larded with accounts of the legendary origins of Ireland. Lacking authorial
dicta or determinate narrative, the reader confronts a kaleidoscopic array
of poetic segments, the meaning of which emerges from their synchronic
patterning, as images and themes recur in different contexts throughout the
work.
Kinsella's sequences, in this regard, possess the kind of 'spatial form'
Joseph Frank discerned in the high modernist literary work, pre-eminently
Ulysses and The Waste Land.zl Yet Kinsella's poetic project is not geared
towards the construction of the fully 'closed', autotelic artwork - the kind of
entirely self-referential Livre of which Mallarme dreamed. While indebted
to Eliot, Kinsella's work cannot be wholly characterised as a late example

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in the line of poetic modernism stemming from the French symbolists.


Kinsella's is an 'open verse', in Olson's parlance: a variety of 'allegory', as
Kinsella uses the term, in which the shifting patterns that evolve in the course
of the poem register the kinetic energies of reality.22 The craving for poetic
order is an appetite for poetry that recognises it is imbricated in a universal
hunger. Poetic creation, in Kinsella, is an imaginative devouring, while the
probing for order is equally a murderous dissection of the sensuous particu-
lar. Order and disorder, chaos and design, comprise the unresolved dialectic
of Kinsella's poetry.
In Walter Benjamin's analysis of the allegorical Trauerspiel, the symbol
represents unity with the universal, whereas allegory recognises our disjunc-
tion from the absolute, to which it can only gesture.23 Kinsella exists in the
fallen world of the allegorist. In Out of Ireland (1987), while the polyphony
that the ninth-century Irish philosopher, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, heard
in the created world clearly stands as a figure for Kinsella's dialogic poetry,
Eriugena's sanguine belief in a return to 'God's light' is one Kinsella cannot
share. He too 'ach[es] for a containing Shape', but the poet's designs are
transitory allegorical arrangements (Poems, 257). In The Good Fight, the
possibility of ordered political justice embodied in Kennedy succumbs to the
antithetical appetites of the nightwalker, Lee Harvey Oswald, whose isola-
tion and scrambled jottings, the poem darkly implies, are a distorted version
of the poetic vocation.
The appetitive violence embodied in Oswald is, elsewhere in the
poem, simply called 'the Jaw' (Poems, 149). In a poem dedicated to
Kinsella, 'Low Water, Howth, 1999', Hugh Maxton (the poetic nom de
plume of the literary historian W.J. McCormack) depicts Irish politics in
equally bestial terms: 'Life lives on life say the wise / Minders of the
Minotaur'.24 Though the harshly satirical tone of the collection in which
this poem appears, Gubu Rot (2000), is clearly modelled on that of Clarke
(whose work, both Maxton and Kinsella have edited), the volume extends
in a bitingly uncompromising direction his reflection in a note appended to
Jubilee for Renegades (1982): 'politically, I consider the poems metaphysical
notations of answerable poignancy'.25 In the poems and sequences succeed-
ing this pronouncement, Maxton has increasingly found such answerabil-
ity in a poetic inflected by the aesthetic theories of the Frankfurt School.
In 'Bomb Culture', Maxton refers to Theodor Adorno's famous reading
of Beckett's Endgame, and tentatively argues for the on-going validity of
modernism's 'dying art-form'; its non-realism 'Shedding as it realises / A
world of power inverted knowledge / Redeemed from its mimetic image'
(Gubu Roi, 38-9).z6 Gubu Ro/'s lambasting of what it takes to be postmod-
ernism's dissolving of historical atrocities into 'Fictive history' or a 'terrorism

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of the text' (Gubu Roi, 34, 36) does not signal a call for poetic mimesis or a
crudely 'committed' literature. Rather, Maxton's predilection for satire - as
in 6 Snapdragons (1985) and the poetic 'postcards' aptly entitled Swift Mail
(1992) - interlocks with his interest in the political efficacy of the avant-garde
artwork.
Maxton's The Puzzle Tree Ascendant (1988) is a mixed-genre work of
verse and prose, accompanied by a series of drawings by Mary FitzGerald.
The juxtaposition of Maxton's text and Fitz Gerald's non-representational
Geometric Progression is a formal justification of that seemingly problematic
term, 'Dublin Modernism', which I quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
In a mock-essay, '[A Mortuary of Disused Mottoes Overheard]', included in
Puzzle Tree, Maxton considers another Irish abstract painter, Cecil King,
in whose paintings he identifies 'a finer critical knowledge (Thomas Mann's
phrase) of society than arm-pit expressionism or metrical polemic. They
are acts of discreet self-denial . . . [a] negation of present modes and re-
lations while working from and against them' {Puzzle Tree, 36-7, 38).
The 'critical knowledge' of King's paintings is not dissimilar to the truth-
content Adorno located in what he took to be the denial, and consequent
refutation, of empirical reality in Beckett's oeuvre and other 'dark works of
modernism'. 27 Maxton, however, considers that such 'negation' in the fullest
sense is unattainable by literature, which cannot dispense entirely with ref-
erence or 'jettison its bump of clay' ^Puzzle Tree, 38).
A solution to this poetic dilemma is proffered, in Puzzle Tree, by recourse
to citation: the composition of a new work through the quotation of pre-
existing texts, a technique that bears a structural resemblance to the use of
found materials in the visual arts. At one point, Maxton refers to Benjamin's
unfinished Passagenwerk: a vast collection of files (Konvoluten) of quota-
tions, spliced with a smaller amount of aphoristic commentary. Benjamin
believed his enormous montage of citations would release into the twentieth
century the Utopian potential that inhered in the commodifed culture - the
'phantasmagoria' - of the nineteenth. Maxton's literary-collage follows the
Passagenwerk's historical methodology, as pre-existing texts are torn from
their original contexts and repositioned in a constellation of illustrations and
poetic fragments. The wilfully opaque text which Maxton creates through
this procedure is, so Puzzle Tree argues, its own guarantee of authenticity:
'such modernism as may remain still struggles towards the moment of its ar-
rival, mercifully protected from embrace and acclaim by the comprehending'
[Puzzle Tree, 38). Unlike Benjamin's, Maxton's is not a redemptive aesthetic:
in line with his satirical bent, it has a purgative drive. In resisting easy con-
sumption, Maxton's literary collage is the expression of a poetics of disso-
nance (art music as much as abstract painting is central to Puzzle Tree), the

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discords of which are made in response to a society envisaged as a 'shopping


complex break [ing] out in a hor or-vacuous chorus of life-advertisement, lies,
and harmony' (Puzzle Tree, 24).
In a fugitive publication formally related to Puzzle Tree, and bearing
the Benjaminian title, Passage (1985), Maxton's Konvoluten include ex-
tracts from an article on the anti-nuclear demonstrators at Greenham Com-
mon and portions of an account of the Eleusian Mysteries associated with
Demeter and Persephone. One effect of the juxtaposition of these source-
texts is to align Olympian male violence - Zeus's brutal fathering of Perse-
phone and her abduction by Hades - with the patriarchal forces, political
and military, ranged against the women protesters at Greenham. The lat-
ter's fires on the common thus find a parallel in the sanctuary light of the
Mysteries, while the hierophant's rebirth at the heart of the pre-Hellenic rit-
ual is set against the possible casualties of a nuclear offensive. Structurally,
Passage is divided into thirty-one sections, each of which has a year-date in
lieu of a title, spanning, with omissions, the period from 1947, the year of
Maxton's birth, to 1982. The occluded years, plus 1983, provide the titles of
a brief section of lyrics, The Widewater Poems, which close the collection as
a whole. The effect of this arrangement is to map the poet's life against the
history of the Cold War: absent from the mythico-political collage, the lyric
subject of the shorter poems is appended to the text as a sort of latter-day
hierophant at 'petrol Eleusis', his Kore an endangered earth.28
Maxton's evacuated autobiography bears some comparison with Trevor
Joyce's Trent Neul (2001), 'an extended auto-biographical essay in prose and
verse from which everything personal has been excluded'.29 Joyce's text, like
Passage, is constructed out of found materials, its erasure of the authorial
subject in favour of a plurality of voices a further example of Joyce's mis-
trust of a monologic 'poetry of expression'.30 For Joyce, the expressive lyric
is essentially monadic, its closed bounds warding off any genuine dialogue
with the world. By way of contrast, Joyce proposes an intersubjective poetic,
as witnessed by his 'writing through' of others' poems (those of Randolph
Healy, Tom Raworth and Michael Smith), and his experiments in a proce-
dural poem such as Syzygy (1998), in which the content of the first section
is dictated by a structure encoded in the second. In these works, the illu-
sory immediacy of the lyric utterance is absent: the poet's voice is mediated
either through other texts or certain controlling procedures. This is poetry
hopefully adequate to an age of information technology, its dialogic forms a
recognition of, and a response to, the growing deformation of communica-
tive action by the various media.
Joyce's Without Asylum (1999) is a meditation on deformation of various
kinds. It opens by reversing normal chronology, with a destructive act run

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backward in time (an event repeated, in different guises, three times in the
course of the poem):

true we may surmise


how a knife hatched
out of meat
should fledge
span with blade
then unexpectedly
take flight onto some sill
moult there with clutch
(with the first dream,
184).

The effect of these lines is of a film in rewind, the knife's blade emerging
out of meat, the 'span' of a hand reappearing on the haft, thus giving rise
to the defamiliarising image of a fledgling taking flight. The final word of
the verse-unit, 'clutch', holds together the initial image of the hand-held
knife, and the bird's eggs, and makes a subject-rhyme with 'hatched' in the
first verse-unit. This replaying of a destructive act, and its transmutation
into a scene redolent of new life (the 'clutch' of eggs), imaginatively reverses
the act of violence; but the poem is at pains to stress that this is merely
poetic wish-fulfilment ('true we may surmise . . . ' ) . Rather, the text contin-
ues by stressing 'murderous / intent and disturbed / dreams', its reversal of
chronology a reversal of causality, an attempt to 'surmise' those agents whose
intentions, more often than not, cannot be discerned in their destructive
consequences.
As the poem progresses, spoliation extends from the individual act of
sticking a knife into the 'meat' of a human body to the 'murderous' ex-
ploitation of the environment, encapsulated in the destruction of timber in
Ireland, both during the Cromwellian era and during the 1970s and 1980s.
Such devastation is the result of impersonal 'companies', 'tellers and their
firm / controllers', whose culpability is obscured through the sheer scale of
the structures involved ('sound / is severed from the dogs throat'; with the
first dream, 186). The poem closes with a nightmarish image of 'an armoured
beast', a postmodern variant of Yeats's 'rough beast', the grotesque hybridity
of which testifies to the carapace - the state's armature, perhaps - protecting
the savagery of corporate self-interest. Confronted by this, the poet cannot
trace 'in this / realm of agents deeds / and instruments', and is left with 'only
a sustained bewilderment' (with the first dream, 186).
Such 'bewilderment' may well be analogous to the reader's experience of
Without Asylum. The 'meaning' of the poem, like that of much of Joyce's

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recent work, is hard to construe; his works instead yield partial readings, like
the thread from Without Asylum unravelled above. Of interest here is the
extent to which this suggests that the 'difficulty' of Joyce's poetry implicates
it in precisely the kind of abrogation of responsibility atomised in Without
Asylum. Is Joyce's poetry symptomatic of the malaise it interrogates? With-
out Asylum investigates human agency and intentionality by means of a
poetry that, for some, may exemplify the kind of de-personalised 'textuality'
celebrated by a narrow form of post-structuralism. However, Joyce's poetics
are more accurately described as liminal between a conception of poetry as
governed by authorial intentions, and one that maintains that the writing
subject, including the lyric T is merely an 'effect' of the impersonal matrix
of language. The latter model of language leans heavily on the linguistic
theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, and is one that underpins much of the
writing of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, such as Charles
Bernstein and Ron Silliman. In Joyce's poetry we do not witness the kind
of radical dissolution of subjectivity to be found within language writing.
Of relevance here is Robert Sheppard's disagreement with Peter Ackroyd's
claim, in Notes for a New Age, that the poetry of the English late mod-
ernist poet, J.H. Prynne, witnesses a dispersal of the humanist self into a
'completely written surface'. Sheppard argues that 'Ackroyd's cultural his-
tory pays too little attention to the productive tension between the lyrical
voice and Language'.31 Joyce's poetry is conditioned by precisely such 'ten-
sion'. Hence his interest in the cyborg, the human-machine hybrid: if Syzygy
originated with a text produced by a human individual (the 'author'), its
subsequent mediation through prescripted procedures entails that it is the
product of both human agency and computer programming.
Joyce's early poetic career was closely associated with Michael Smith's
New Writers' Press. This was founded by Joyce and Smith in 1967 simply
as a means of getting into print new Irish poetry. By the early 1970s it had
become a vehicle for Smith's 'corrected history' of Irish poetry - a literary
history in which Coffey and Devlin were perceived as major players and
as progenitors, of a kind, to poets including Joyce and Geoffrey Squires.32
While the Irish modernist poets of the 1930s do not in fact number among
the influences on Joyce's early work, it is not erroneous to trace, a la Smith,
a counter-tradition of Irish avant-gardist poetry from Beckett, Devlin and
Coffey to the New Writers' Press poets such as Joyce and Squires. Smith's
account is a publisher-poet's polemic and, as such, tends to smooth-over
the complex contours of the literary revival, suppresses the far from ho-
mogenous nature of the poetry produced by the poets of the 1930s, and
ignores the projects of a number of women poets of that decade, such as
Wingfield, Rhoda Coghill and Blanaid Salkeld. It also neglects the extent to

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which poets not normally read in the context of literary modernism, Clarke
and Padraic Fallon, self-consciously wrote at the mid-century in response to
Pound as much as to Yeats, thus further testifying to the blotchy permeation
of Irish poetry by modernism.
By way of conclusion, the work of a small number of other contempo-
rary Irish experimental poets, including Randolph Healy, David Lloyd, Billy
Mills, Maurice Scully and Catherine Walsh, should be mentioned. The po-
ets named do not comprise a coherent 'group' of any kind, rather, their
work shares an abjuration of lyric and narrative poetic modes, favouring
instead writing practices that proliferate reference, generate indeterminacy.
These are texts that violate generic expectations, the authors of which self-
consciously, even aggressively in some cases, position themselves against a
poetic 'mainstream' and its critical and publishing apparatus. To this extent,
they can be said to constitute a neo-avant-garde in Irish poetry, along the
lines suggested by the art historian, Hal Foster (his emphasis): 'historical
and neo-avant-gardes are constituted in a similar way, as a continual process
of protension and retension, a complex relay of anticipated futures and re-
constructed pasts-in short, in a deferred action that throws over any simple
scheme of before and after, cause and effect, origin and repetition'.33

NOTES

1 Hugh Maxton, The Puzzle Tree Ascendant (Dublin: Dedalus, 1988), p. 35.
2 See Thomas MacDonagh, Literature in Ireland: Studies Irish and Anglo-Irish
(1916; Dublin: Relay, 1996), pp. 5-6; and Samuel Beckett, 'Recent Irish Poetry'
(1934), in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby
Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983), pp. 70-6.
3 See rev. of Earth of Cualann, by Joseph Campbell, Egoist, 411 (Dec. 1917),
pp. 172-3. The attribution of this unsigned review to Eliot is made in Donald
Gallup, T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, 2nd edn. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969),
p. 200.
4 See Paul Peppis, Literature, Politics, and the English Avant-Garde: Nation and
Empire, 1901-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1-19.
5 J.C.C. Mays, 'How is MacGreevy a Modernist?', in Patricia Coughlan and Alex
Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork University
Press, 1995), P. n o .
6 Beckett, Disjecta, p. 70.
7 Terence Brown, 'Ireland, Modernism and the 1930s', in Patricia Coughlan and
Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork
University Press, 1995), p. 38.
8 Denis Devlin, Collected Poems of Denis Devlin, ed. J.C.C. Mays (Dublin: Dedalus,
1989), p. 71.
9 Lawrence E. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton University Press,
1970), p. 78.

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ALEX DAVIS

10 Samuel Beckett, Collected Poems 1930-1978 (London: John Calder, 1984),


p. 15.
11 Patricia Coughlan,' "The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves": Beckett, Ireland and
Modernist Lyric Poetry', in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism
and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork University Press, 1995), P- X9^-
12 Donal Moriarty, The Art of Brian Coffey (University College Dublin Press, 2000),
p. 16.
13 Sheila Wingfield, Collected Poems 1938-1983 (London: Enitharmon, 1983),
p. 72.
14 See Sheila Powerscourt, Sun Too Fast (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1974), p. 121.
15 T.S. Eliot, 'Ulysses, Order, and Myth' (1923), in Selected Prose ofT.S. Eliot, ed.
Frank Kermode (London: Faber, 1975), p. 178.
16 John Goodby, Irish poetry since 19J0: from stillness into history (Manchester
University Press, 2000), p. 99.
17 Thomas MacGreevy, Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy, ed. Susan Schreib-
man (Dublin: Anna Livia, 1991), p. 15.
18 Eugene R. Watters, The Week-End of Dermot and Grace (Dublin: Allen Figgis,
1964), p. 5.
19 James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber, 1939), p. 593.
20 Thomas Kinsella, Collected Poems 1956-2001 (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001),
p. 81.
21 See Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature
(Urbana: Indiana University Press, 1963).
22 See Kinsella's 'Ballydavid Pier': 'Allegory forms of itself: / The line of life creeps
upwards / Replacing one world with another' (Poems, p. 57).
23 See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osbourne
(London: New Left Books, 1977).
24 Hugh Maxton, Gubu Roi: Poems & Satires, 1991-1999 (Belfast: Lagan, 2000),
P- 55-
25 Hugh Maxton, jubilee for Renegades: Poems 1976-1980 (Dublin: Dolmen,
1982), p. 80.
26 Maxton / McCormack discusses Adorno's essay in From Burke to Beckett: Ascen-
dancy, Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History (Cork University Press, 1994),
pp. 410-27. On the relationship between McCormack and his alter ego, see
Hugh Maxton, Waking: An Irish Protestant Upbringing (Belfast: Lagan, 1997),
p. 212.
27 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minnea-
polois: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 318.
28 Hugh Maxton, Passage (with surviving poems) (Bradford on Avon, 1985),
n. pag.
29 This is from the description of the poem on the dustjacket to Trevor Joyce, with
the first dream of fire they hunt the cold: A Body of Work 1966/2000 (Dublin:
New Writers' Press/Cullompton: Shearsman, 2001).
30 Trevor Joyce, 'The Point of Innovation in Poetry', in Harry Gilonis (ed.), For
the Birds: Proceedings of the First Cork Conference on New and Experimen-
tal Irish Poetry (Sutton: Mainstream Poetry/Dublin: hardPressed Poetry, 1998),
p. 19.

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31 Robert Sheppard, Far Language: Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry


1978-199-/ (Exeter: Stride, 1999), p. 12.
32 See Smith's editorials to New Writers' Press journal, The Lace Curtain (1969-78),
and his polemical article, 'Irish Poetry since Yeats: Notes Towards a Corrected
History', Denver Quarterly, 5 (1971), pp. 1-26.
33 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century
(Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996), p. 29.

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Poetry of the 1960s: the 'Northern


Ireland Renaissance5

1
In August 1970, Eavan Boland published a series of three articles in the Irish
Times entitled 'The Northern writers' crisis of conscience'. In the concluding
article, Boland asks: 'how . . . will writers in Northern Ireland articulate the
crisis in progress outside and within them, the retrospect on communities
it must force, the needs it imposes to reorder increasingly chaotic impres-
sions?'. How will writers cope, she continues, with 'such intractable, yet
urgent material'?1 Criticism may since have become more circumspect in
approaching these questions, but their underlying assumptions still prove
contentious in reading contemporary Irish poetry. In effect, Boland implic-
itly assumes here that Northern writers are a distinct group; that they have
responsibilities towards the Troubles which are not necessarily shared by
their Southern counterparts; that individual anxieties and conflicts manifest
the anxieties of the state; that writers are identifiable with, or speak from, a
particular religious community; and that poetry will, in MacNeice's phrase,
'make sense of the world . . . put shape on it' in 1930s generation style.2
This is one of many early indications that contemporary poetry in North-
ern Ireland, rapidly becoming of interest to the media, was not likely to be
read outside the context of the Troubles, thus positing a symbiotic relation-
ship between poetry and violence; the reputations and public profiles of these
and other writers developed beyond their own shores in tandem with North-
ern Ireland's own growing international profile. The political problems of the
province spiralled out of control to reach a wider audience as Northern Irish
poetry simultaneously began to make its mark on an international stage.
Consequently, any reading of 1960s poetry in Ireland may succumb to more
than one temptation, not least of which is to read the story from a post-1969
perspective, and bring expectations about poetry engendered in part by the
Troubles to bear on writing from the early and mid-1960s (among which,
notably, are the first collections by Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and

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Derek Mahon). Critics scour the early collections by these poets for poems
about the violence. Many discussions of contemporary Northern poetry take
1969 as their starting point. The Troubles link also encourages parallels be-
tween the Revivals - literary and cultural - of the early part of the century,
and what has been termed the 'Ulster Revival' of the 1960s and 1970s. The
Irish Revival, with its nationalist agenda, its emergence from a context of
political stalemate and literary silence, and its link with violence through
the poet-revolutionaries of Easter 1916, appears to set a precedent for a
further literary revival in the North, also inextricably intertwined with
Irish/British politics, and running parallel to, if unconnected with, campaigns
of violence: the 'ghost of analogy', as Richard Kirkland points out, 'shadows
events'.3 'Yeats to Heaney' is more than merely a convenient marketing ploy.
It has proved equally tempting, if misleading, to compare the Ulster poetry
'phenomenon' of the late 1960s and 1970s to the deliberately regionalist
school of Ulster poetry in the 1940s and 1950s - the attempt by John Hewitt
and others to collapse unionist and nationalist division into loyalty to the
'region', from which, it was hoped, would emerge 'a culture and an attitude
individual and distinctive, a fine contribution to the European inheritance'.4
Both analogies implicitly attribute some kind of shared agenda to con-
temporary Ulster poets, although the agendas themselves - regionalist and
nationalist - conflict. To read poetry according to the imperatives of time and
place (the Troubles, Northern Ireland) is also too often to miss the broader
poetic context in which that work should properly find its 'place'. Poets
from Northern Ireland have been the focus of extensive academic and media
attention over the last thirty years, sometimes to the detriment of proper
consideration of their work in the island's poetic traditions as a whole, and
in the context of British, Irish and American cultural exchange and influence.
'Decades', as John Montague writes, 'are untidy things'.5 In contrast,
'Northern poetry post-1969' is a critical package that is temptingly coher-
ent, a narrative with a logical starting point, and one that ultimately strives
towards (political) closure. But it places the 1960s themselves in historical
limbo, in turn detaching post-1969 poetry from some of its origins and its
aesthetic moorings. The 1960s mark the emergence of the concerns, achieve-
ments and influences that were to ensure a reputation for much contempo-
rary Irish poetry in spite of, rather than because of, Irish politics. While
one possible narrative is of endings in poetry, marked by the (premature)
deaths of MacNeice (1963) and of Kavanagh (1967), the more dominant
narrative - for these poets too - is one of beginnings. A renascent interest
in the poetry and influence of Kavanagh and MacNeice brings them into
play in contemporary debate in the 1960s. Mahon suggests that MacNeice's
reputation finally 'come[s] to rest' in Ireland;6 in retrospect he might more

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accurately say comes to life. And while Kavanagh may have bewailed the
lack of an audience in Ireland, that audience was already in place in as
much as his challenge to the insular, rural and sentimental Celtic lyricism
popularised by Yeats's followers was bearing fruit in a new generation
free from the shadow of late Revivalist poetics. John Montague, Thomas
Kinsella, Richard Murphy and John Hewitt provided, in the late 1950s and
early 1960s, both precedent and example for younger poets. In the cases of
Kinsella and Montague in particular, their own emergence as poets through
the 1950s, and in apparently unpropitious circumstances, offered a more
immediate encouragement for the emergence of the 1960s generation than
the revivals in the earlier part of the century.
Since the media interest in poetry from Northern Ireland began, John Mon-
tague has been inclined alternately to promote and condemn the concept of
'Northern poetry', a fluctuation which probably fairly accurately represents
the varying degrees of attention given to his own work in the context of
a 'Northern renaissance'. Nevertheless, there is some truth in Montague's
own claim that he can be seen as the 'missing link' in Ulster poetry between
the regionalist activities of the 1940s and 1950s, and the younger genera-
tion of the 1960s.7 The regionalist agenda was optimistic - Montague's own
background, for instance, engendered an antipathy towards its implicitly
unionist sympathies - and the failure of regionalism partly accounts for the
fact that, as the 1950s ended, neither John Hewitt nor Roy McFadden had
published a full-length collection since the 1940s, W.R. Rodgers since 1951.
Hewitt left Northern Ireland in 1957, to what might be seen as involuntary
exile, and was not to return until 1972. If the North's repressive unionist
Stormont parliament perpetuated a presbyterian ethos that offered its own
form of censorship, as it also perpetuated a social and political structure of
inequality, the Republic, for Montague, was equally dominated in the 1940s
and 1950s by the conditions of exile, censorship and literary isolationism.
He describes it as 'a limbo land', its literary culture as 'a procession of sad
and broken poets and complaining novelists', and his own condition as one
of 'stunned isolation'. 'There was', Montague writes, 'no tradition for some-
one of my [Ulster Catholic] background to work in'.8 Effectively suggesting
that his isolation in the South in the 1940s and 1950s is a consequence of
his Northernness, and in the North a consequence of his Catholicism, Mon-
tague mythologises his departure from Ireland in 1952 as a (Joycean) 'flight'
from both, a form of exile, from which he was not to return until the late
1950s. As Robert Garratt argues, in Montague's first two collections, Forms
of Exile (1958) and Poisoned Lands (1961), the 'posture' of the early poems
is 'struck partly out of fascination with Ireland but also out of regret and
rejection'.9

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Montague responds to the complexity of his environment by explaining


his poetic identity in terms of internationalism, claiming a 'natural complic-
ity in three cultures, American, Irish and French', and the possession of a
'world consciousness' as well as 'local allegiances'.10 One consequence of
this convoluted, and perhaps over-argued formula is an uneasy relationship
with the Northern poets who come to prominence on an international stage
later without the need to claim internationalism. But Montague's poetry in
the 1960s both resists the insularity and anti-modernity that had been symp-
tomatic of Irish culture and simultaneously validates the importance of the
local and traditional - a difficult but important balance to find. The Rough
Field (1972) is a poem often, and easily, read in the context of the Troubles,
appearing as it did in its final form when the violence was at its height.
But its influence begins much earlier. Written in fits and starts between
1961-71, the poem is, in a way, a barometer of the conflicts and shifts in
perspective - between repression and freedom, tradition and modernity, op-
timism and pessimism, beginnings and endings - characteristic of its decade
of composition. The 'Rough Field' is Montague's home town of Garvaghey
(garbh achaidh, a rough field); but the local context is also broadened since
the roughfieldis simultaneously the sweep of (often violent) history that runs
alongside the poem's lyrics and destroys the pastoral idyll - 'Our finally lost
dream of man at home / in a rural setting!' (The Rough Field, p. 83 )IJ That
history deliberately disrupts the conventional lyric flow of the poem, which
is interspersed with sixteenth century woodcuts, and presented alongside ex-
tracts from speeches, historical documents, journalism and traditional Irish
verse, in a manner which makes the poem as a whole unconventional in its
stylistic experimentation, but within which Montague's own poetry adheres
to traditional form. Throughout, Montague both regrets a culture that has
disappeared; he also validates its existence in the act of recording that which
was previously forgotten. The landscape, for Montague, is 'a manuscript /
We had lost the skill to read' (p. 35) but the poem implicitly, in its form
and structure, also finds a new way to read it. 'Like Dolmens Round my
Childhood', his best known poem from the early 1960s, which appeared in
Poisoned Lands (1961) and was subsequently collected in The Rough Field,
both mocks 'ancient Ireland', in all its stereotypical guises, but is simulta-
neously seduced by, and seduces its reader with, its 'dark permanence of
ancient forms' (16-17). While Montague flirts with ideas of internation-
alism and experimentalism, in terms of example, his significance - certainly
for Seamus Heaney - lies more in the poetic validation of his home ground
in a wider European context, a context that Hewitt, a less accomplished
poet, failed to reach. Thus, Heaney's debt to Montague is evident in the
early Montague poems - 'The Trout', 'The Water Carrier', 'Like Dolmens

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Round my Childhood' - which speak to Heaney's own rural background


and tradition.

II
For Mahon, encountering Montague's 'Like Dolmens Round My Childhood'
in i960 proved that the North was not, after all, 'barren of poetry'.12 As
Montague himself notes, when he was awarded a prize for the poem, it was
announced in the Irish press as 'Dublin poet wins Belfast Prize', 'so little were
they used to someone of [his] background' ('Preface' to The Rough Field,
p. 7). That attitude suggests that the post-war generation of Longley,
Mahon and Heaney started out in equally unpropitious circumstances. Long-
ley describes Northern Ireland in the late 1950s as 'godforsaken'. For Mahon
it was a 'cultural desert'. Heaney borrows Mahon's own phrase to describe
the stagnant mood of the time: 'If a coathanger knocked in a wardrobe / That
was a great event'.13 But by the late 1960s, that state of affairs had become
unrecognisable. The decade, with its modernisation programmes, scientific
developments, civil rights movements, social and religious destabilisation,
and new educational opportunities (facilitated by the Butler Education Act
of 1947), may be seen as a period of change sufficiently extraordinary to
render the illusion of (sepia-tinted) pre-Troubles Irish tranquillity as inaccu-
rate as the characterisation of an innocent and stable pre-First World War
Edwardian England. The new energies in social and political life also rever-
berated culturally, and vice versa. In Ireland, the Dolmen Press had provided
new publishing opportunities for poets; new journals appeared or were re-
vived, among them Poetry Ireland. This upsurge in the indigenous life of Irish
poetry was also paralleled by an increased engagement with writers and au-
diences 'across the water': Faber beckoned as much as Dolmen. In Britain,
Alvarez's influential anthology, The New Poetry, with its call for a 'new se-
riousness' in poetry and its rejection of the 'gentility principle' indicated a
new energy that also reverberated in Ireland, as Alvarez's general editorship
of the Penguin Modern European Poets series brought work by Mandel-
stam, Akhmatova, and others into creative dialogue with British and Irish
poetry during the 1960s.14 The changes through the decade also prompted
significant re-evaluations for Montague and Hewitt: they found little com-
mon ground in the 1950s, but by 1970 they were working together on the
'Planter and Gael' tour, and as Hewitt noted, poems which had triggered
no response at their time of publication took on a new relevance at the end
of the 1960s.15 MacNeice's last collection, The Burning Perch (1963), far
from marking an ending, took the lyric into a new dimension. The black
humour, irony and parabolic approach of his later lyrics haunt the work of

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later poets such as Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, in a mode of writ-
ing all the more telling in its obliquity. Kavanagh's Come Dance with Kitty
Stobling (i960) contains the resurgence of confidence in his roots, the desire
to 'wallow in the habitual',16 that was to prove inspirational for Heaney in
the mid-1960s, and the publication of his Collected Poems (1964) redressed
the bleak situation in which much of his work had been out of print.
Michael Longley's comment that for him the 1960s 'began quietly in
Dublin and ended tumultuously in Belfast' thus encompasses more than sim-
ply the move from a context of political stability to one of sectarian strife.17
One consequence of the poetic developments of the 1960s was that the old
stereotype of literary Dublin versus philistine Belfast - elegance as opposed
to industrialisation - lost much of its force as poetic maps were, of neces-
sity, redrawn to include the North. The publication in the second half of the
decade of new collections by young poets North and South - including Derek
Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Brendan Kennelly,
Michael Hartnett and James Simmons - some of whom would eventually es-
tablish international reputations and cast many of their predecessors into the
shade, marked a new (and on-going) phase of poetic activity. Of these poets,
the fact that an unprecedented number are Northern writers inevitably fuels
talk of an 'Ulster Revival' or a 'Northern Renaissance' of poetry. For Thomas
Kinsella, the idea of a 'Northern Ireland Renaissance' is 'largely a journal-
istic entity', a shorthand way of accounting for a coincidence of talent.18
The idea has also led to over-simplifications: if poetic maps were redrawn
to include the North, one might now say that they were redrawn in popular
perception to the extent that they seemed to encompass only the North after
1969. But Northern writers themselves have always been at once more am-
biguous and less dismissive about the idea of a Northern Renaissance than
their Southern counterparts: as Mahon points out, Kinsella is 'right up to a
point', but 'there is more to it than that'.19 One reason for that ambiguity
is Northern writers' sense of a shared social, economic and political as well
as cultural environment in the mid to late 1960s distinct from that of the
Republic: the conditions of production, in other words, differ significantly.
That assumption might seem uncontroversial, but it has far-reaching im-
plications. Not least, the concept of a 'Northern Renaissance', or even a
'Northern poetry', carries within it the suggestion that Irish writing is itself
partitioned, that writers are working in two different traditions. As Richard
Kirkland points out, for some critics at least, 'To acknowledge that Northern
Ireland operated under a different political and social regime than the rest of
the island was one aspect of the argument, but to suggest that such difference
in turn created a distinct literature of its own was . . . unacceptable'.20 The
ambiguity surrounding such arguments may be measured in a consideration

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of the reception of Heaney's own poetry, which in its early stages may be seen
to benefit from the partitionist critical viewpoint that stresses his 'Northern-
ness', and yet which later makes its way on to an international stage under the
banner of 'Irishness'. 'We cannot be unaware', Heaney writes, 'of the link be-
tween the political glamour of the place (Ulster), the sex-appeal of violence,
and the prominence accorded to the poets'.21 Mahon's own sense that 'the
poet from the North had a new thing to say, a new kind of sound to make,
a new texture to create', implies the emergence, or renaissance, of a distinct
literature. But he is also inclined to qualify those implications (Irish writing
is 'all one'; 'you can't renasce something that was never nasce'). Mahon, who
argues that the 'poetry and the "troubles" had a common source; the same
energy gave rise to both', is also careful to point out that 'the poetry preceded
the politics'22 - the Troubles do not inspire Northern poetry. But since they
inspire much of the journalistic interest in that poetry through the 1970s,
they also engender an increasing caution on the part of poets unwilling to
find themselves trapped by a literary terminology that might misrepresent
their political viewpoints.

Ill
If a certain amount of political distancing - which does not necessarily deny
a distinctive context of production - takes place, the Northern poets are
also concerned to distance themselves from a second, related suggestion that
hovers behind the terms 'renaissance' and 'revival': that the poets constitute
a distinctive poetic 'movement' or 'alliance'. Since this concerns the issue of
shared (or otherwise) aesthetic principles, it affects questions of individual
identity as well as poetic reputation. It is in this latter context that the forma-
tion and influence of a creative writing group at Queen's University Belfast,
known as the Belfast Group, becomes pertinent. The story of the Belfast
Group has become the stuff of myth. It has also become a contentious story,
since interpretations of the Group's significance bear on perceptions of the
shifting relationships between writers, their differing aesthetic practices, and
the variable fortunes of Northern poetry and criticism more generally in the
years that have followed.
In its first, and most famous phase, the Group began in Belfast in 1963,
under the auspices of Philip Hobsbaum, who had joined Queen's English
department in October of that year. (Hobsbaum left Belfast in 1966, and the
Group lapsed for a short period, but was reconstituted in 1968 by Michael
Allen, Arthur Terry and Seamus Heaney.) Hobsbaum, who had been taught
by F.R. Leavis and worked with William Empson, came to Queen's with a rep-
utation as a talent spotter, as a formalist 'new critic' who had an avowed aim

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'to take Leavis's approach into the modern sector',23 and as the founder, in
1955, of a creative writing group in London which had published A Group
Anthology in 1963. The London group's discussions were based on the prac-
tice of Leavisite criticism - 'closer and more analytical discussion' and an
encouragement to 'pay attention to the text itself'.24 Other critical prompt-
ings came from Empson and T.S. Eliot; London participants included Edward
Lucie-Smith, Peter Porter, George MacBeth and Peter Redgrove.
The Belfast Group, with this precedent and Hobsbaum's contacts behind it,
thus indisputably gave what Longley has termed 'an air of seriousness and
electricity to the notion of writing',25 something which had been lacking
in Belfast, despite the best efforts of the earlier generation of McFadden,
Hewitt and Rodgers to promote a Northern cultural energy in the 1940s.
It provided, in Arthur Terry's words, 'a meeting place for people of very
different backgrounds and interests',26 something which, in the repressive
and socially divisive atmosphere of the North at that time, could not be
taken for granted, as it was also a meeting place of aesthetic ideas current
in Dublin, London and Belfast. (Perennial talking points were Yeats and
Auden.) It brought literary critics into dialogue with creative writers. And as
Norman Dugdale, a group member in the mid-1960s, points out, it provided
'an audience, however localised, which was prepared to listen',27 the lack
of which Kavanagh had bewailed in the Republic. Creativity was in the air;
the Group provided a talking point on the ground. Heaney attended from
its inception; Michael Longley on his return to Belfast in 1964. Other Group
members included, at various times, Stewart Parker, James Simmons and
Bernard MacLaverty, as well as the critics Edna Longley and Michael Allen.
Hobsbaum himself was an experienced writer and publicist who in 'mov [ing]
disparate elements into a single action' enabled a public perception of the
Group as a phenomenon worthy of attention, and of its individuals as worthy
of publication.28
That attention began before the Troubles, and, indeed, before the first full
collections of any of the new poets had appeared. The Belfast Festival pub-
lication, in 1965-66, of pamphlets by various members of the Group gener-
ated local media interest: those pamphlets by Heaney, Mahon and Longley
contain core poems which were to find their way into their first collections,
Death of a Naturalist (1966), Night-Crossing (1968) and No Continuing
City (1969) respectively. The cultural flowering of this period may be seen
as inspired by a new optimism and an energy that, it was hoped, would see
the end of repression and oppression in its various forms. The first issue, in
May 1968, of the Honest Ulsterman, edited by James Simmons, a journal
which was to provide an important local publishing venue for poets and
critics in Northern Ireland, captured the mood of the decade in billing itself

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as 'a magazine of revolution', and advertised its contents as a heady mix of


debate on 'Love, Exile, Humanism, Hashish, Courage, History, Louis Mac-
Neice . . . '. Simmons's own poetry injected a different dimension into the
Northern scene on his return in the late 1960s: his blurring of the edges of
the genre through connections to song-writing and the ballad tradition link
him with a more general popularisation of poetry in Britain and Ireland at
the time; his sense of the interdependence of life and art, and of the urgency
of direct and colloquial writing, run slightly counter to the Group's own
New Critical preoccupations.
Over the last thirty years, Heaney and Longley, the Group's best-known
poet-participants, and Mahon, its most famous non-participant, have, along
with others, offered differing versions of its significance in what Dugdale
has termed 'obituarial oscillations',29 oscillations which may be understood
partly in terms of divergent aesthetic principles. In that sense, unsurpris-
ingly perhaps, accounts of the Group, even if they implicitly suggest shared
contexts and concerns, work first and foremost to validate the individual aes-
thetic. The well-worn myth of the Group as it appears in most critical narra-
tives is also closely linked to Heaney's own first narrative of the Group, and
to his reflections on the nature of criticism and poetry more generally. For
Heaney, the group 'ratified the activity of writing' and transformed the state
of affairs in which he had no 'sense of contemporary poetry' - as he points
out, he graduated in 1962 without having heard Larkin's name mentioned.30
In his account of the Group in Preoccupations it becomes a mythic origin,
an apprenticeship which consolidates the craft not only of his own poetry,
but also of the mode of criticism, Anglo-American New Criticism, or 'prac-
tical criticism', by which that poetry is well-served.31 Heaney was, as other
Group members recognised, Hobsbaum's star. His densely textured, empir-
ically grounded, traditional and accessible mode of writing apparently both
validated the English 1950s Movement aesthetic endorsed by Hobsbaum
(whose own volumes of poetry carry an obvious debt to Larkin) and gave
that aesthetic a rawer edge, Ted Hughes style. Read in these terms, Heaney
casts out the gentility principle to give formalism a new lease of life as a
possible counter to threats from 1960s experimentalist poetry and emerging
structuralist agendas.
In a sense, therefore, the Group, and Hobsbaum, gave Heaney self-
confidence, as Heaney's career reciprocally became a means by which Hob-
sbaum validated his own critical principles. That initial lack of confidence
was not a feeling shared by his contemporaries, Longley and Mahon. Con-
sequently, although Larkin and Hughes may stand as the obvious influences
on Heaney's early poems (along with other English poets - Robert Graves,
Wilfred Owen, and, further back, Wordsworth), a significant part of

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Heaney's origin myth is the celebration of Patrick Kavanagh's role in vali-


dating a background and experience that had little voice in Irish poetry. The
genuine parochial, Kavanagh famously argued, 'is never in any doubt about
the social and artistic validity of his parish'. Kavanagh's own 'Epic', with
its assertion that 'Gods make their own importance', is thus a paradigmatic
poem for Heaney's lyrics.32 Heaney's home ground of Mossbawn makes its
own importance in the 1960s, as his 'Bogland' (c. 1966-67), which begins
with what it lacks - 'We have no prairies to slice a sun at evening', the seem-
ingly wider horizons of America - ends by validating its own narrow ground
as infinitely inspirational space: 'the wet centre is bottomless'.33 Significantly,
therefore, when Heaney evaluates the Group dynamic from the vantage
point of the 1970s, he does so, knowingly and slightly mischievously, in
terms of his own aesthetic practice as adopted and adapted from Kavanagh's
(idiosyncratic) version of provincialism and parochialism: 'now, of course',
Heaney writes, 'we're genuine parochials. Then we were craven provincials.
Hobsbaum contributed much to that crucial transformation'.34
If Heaney's interpretation of the Group is implicated in his appropriation
of Kavanagh, his sense of an 'apprenticeship' served in the Group is also
bound up with an aesthetic that is invested in the concept of apprentice-
ship in other ways. Heaney 'learns' the craft of poetry as one would learn
the crafts paralleled with poetry in Death of a Naturalist: digging, butter-
churning, water-divining and so on. The trope continues into Door into the
Dark to become central to Heaney's aesthetic: 'Bogland', as Heaney describes
its composition, 'opened the way wood falls open if you hit a wedge into it
along the grain'.35 In 'The Forge', the blacksmith 'expends himself in shape
and music'; he 'grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick / To beat real
iron out, to work the bellows' (Door into the Dark, 7). Poetry, in Heaney's
terms, is both labour and inspiration (as it is also sexually charged, an im-
plicitly masculine activity), beating real iron out of the language, making
the lyric 'eat stuff it has never eaten before'.36 The Group is thus implicitly
and seamlessly incorporated into the rural myth of origins and identity, of
continuity between cultural and physical labour, with all the disingenuous-
ness such 'continuity' implies.37 The real sophistication of Heaney's early
writing lies in part in his ability to make an audience believe the process of
writing is natural and simple. In its Kavanagh-esque function, the Group,
for Heaney, is implicated in the process of recovery and rediscovery of a
marginalised community, a cultural project - habitually presented in his po-
etry in natural terms - which carries important political overtones in the
Northern Ireland of the late 1960s. Kavanagh, Heaney argues, 'brought the
subculture to cultural power'. The publication of Death of a Naturalist -
the precocity of which owes much to the Group's existence - was also, he

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continues, a 'ratification . . . a sense that you had represented something that


had happened to your generation, you had broken the silence'. Poems are,
he writes, 'elements of continuity'; poetry is 'the restoration of a culture to
itself'.38 In that sense, Heaney picks up not only on Kavanagh's parochial
aesthetic, he also follows John Montague's attempted recovery of the 'shards
of a lost tradition' infindingthe 'skill to read' the landscape, the loss of which
had left his predecessor clutching at a vanished world. Heaney's 'tradition'
is in one sense a fiction (poetry is not the same as digging); but it is also
upheld with an astonishing confidence, partly because its 'continuity' myth
has been built from scratch.
That the Group has been implicitly integrated into Heaney's aesthetic in
this way - both by Heaney and his critics - partly explains Longley's own
restrained judgement that the Group 'meant more' to Heaney than to himself
or Mahon.39 Derek Mahon, in any case, was not a member of the Group
(although he attended one or two sessions on his visits to Belfast) and was
not resident in Northern Ireland during this period. Both Mahon and Long-
ley have more studiedly downplayed the Group's significance, where Heaney
has at times, perhaps unconsciously, gathered the Group under his own aes-
thetic umbrella (the 'we' of 'we're genuine parochials'?). Heaney's role as
critic as well as poet has also opened up an audience for his early prose writ-
ings that his closest contemporaries have tended to lack - Preoccupations
remains the standard resource even though Heaney himself has subsequently
retreated from some of its judgements.40 Consequently, Longley and Mahon
have been concerned, in recent years, both to dispel certain Group myths,
and to raise awareness of what one might call a counter-myth, one that
challenges commonplace assumptions about the emergence of 'Northern
poetry' in a troubled Belfast - namely the significance of the 'apprentice-
ship' served by both Mahon and Longley (along with Brendan Kennelly
and, later, Eavan Boland) as students at Trinity College Dublin in the early
1960s.
Importantly, the poetry scene at Trinity from 1960-63 is not claimed by
Longley and Mahon as a 'movement', or alliance, but as a confluence of
different ideas, perspectives and influences, with a shared publishing out-
let, the student magazine Icarus. The Icarus editorial of March 1961 over-
enthusiastically claims that 'there is a strong fluent, centralized, fundamen-
tally pure poetic movement right here in Trinity' which is concerned with
'love, society, nature and philosophy'. Michael Longley refuted this in the
June 1961 issue, arguing that a 'happy coincidence' of lyric poets in one place
is not a movement, still less, and more presumptuously, a 'Movement'. Nev-
ertheless, that the debate can take place indicates something of the cultural
energy of Trinity in this period, comparable to that which emerges in Belfast

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two years later. Mahon describes Trinity as: 'More than a remarkable experi-
ence, a whole way of life . . . We published in the college magazines and even
in the books pages of the Irish Times. We did readings in the rooms of the
Philosophical Society... [Longley and I] read as far up as Lowell and Larkin,
as far up as Kinsella and Montague . . . University life merged imperceptibly
into literary life'.41 The Northern student who went to Trinity, he argues,
'picked up an all-Ireland view instead of the provincial view'.42 Longley sug-
gests that Alec Reid, an English lecturer at Trinity who founded Icarus in
1950 (and left in 1963), was a 'father figure' who fulfilled the Hobsbaum
role.43 The influences at work on both poets at this time included Yeats,
MacNeice and Graves, as well as American poets such as cummings, Crane,
Stevens, Lowell and Wilbur. In contrast to Heaney's undergraduate years,
both had an acute sense of developments in contemporary poetry, reading
Montague's and Kinsella's early collections, as well as work by Geoffrey Hill,
Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin.
Some of these influences are seen at work in the poems Mahon and
Longley published in Icarus in the early 1960s. Mahon's early love poems
have an obvious, and rewarding debt to Robert Graves as well as to the
French symbolists. The preoccupation with language and the metaphysical
uncertainty that carry into his first collection are also present in poems,
discarded as juvenilia, that would rival the mature work of others. Mahon's
arrival on the pages oi Icarus in i960 with 'Subsidy Bungalows' foreshadows
his important revision of '[w]hatever we mean by "the Irish situation" ' to
include the shipyards of Belfast and the suburban, Protestant lower middle-
class existence.44 Similarly, Longley's own poetry, given new energy by
Mahon's arrival at Trinity, promises the formal accomplishment that would
make his first collection an exceptionally virtuoso performance in contem-
porary poetry, and manifests the precision in language - also characteristic
of Richard Wilbur - that remains a hallmark of Longley's aesthetic, as it
was also to become a vital stay against the pressures of Northern Ireland
in the 1970s. Some of this work was, of course, subsequently jettisoned.
But the Belfast Group's influence here may be measured in part by the fact
that a number of poems Longley brought to the Group had been published
in Icarus two years earlier, and underwent little or no revision in Belfast.
Mahon's 'Prayer for an Unborn Child', and Longley's 'Epithalamion', pub-
lished in Icarus in 1963, went into Night Crossing (1968) and No Continuing
City (1969) respectively towards the end of the decade. With the maturity
of these poems, it is difficult not to sense the end of an 'apprenticeship' in
1963 comparable to the end of the Belfast Group's first phase in 1966.
Edna Longley argues that the 'aesthetic conflicts that pervaded [the
Group's] sessions', and which militate against the notion of a 'cosy fostering',

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have much to do with the very different contexts in which its poets began to
write, and that Hobsbaum himself, in Group sessions:

did not, as a rule, endorse Romantic, symbolist, mythic, metaphysical and


rhetorical tendencies, including those derived from [Yeats, Graves, Crane,
Stevens and Lowell] . . . Dylan Thomas was - and remains - anathema. Much
of this echoed central emphases of the English Movement and diverged from
the aesthetic principles established between Mahon and Longley in Dublin -
where, for instance, Lowell represented a walk on the wild side and Larkin's
dialogue with Yeats struck more chords than his relation to Kingsley Amis.45

Hobsbaum's preference for what Heaney terms 'the bleeding hunk of


experience' 46 does not sit comfortably with Longley's formal precision and
fascination with myth, any more than with Mahon's urbanity, metaphysical
unease and Yeatsian rhetoric. The Gravesian notion of the Muse expounded
in The White Goddess (a text which had its own 'revival' in the 1960s) in-
fluences both poets, and also associates their work with the romanticism of
1940s English poetry, as well as with Yeats, both associations that English
Movement poets in the 1950s were anxious to refute. Thus, as Heaney recog-
nises, Longley's poems were habitually challenged in Group sessions where
his own were praised. 47 Mahon, typically, kept an ironic and literal distance
from the whole thing ('Too Leavisite and too contentious' 48 ), whilst contin-
uing to comment on the Group and its activities with cheerful irreverence.
The ambiguous relation of both Longley and Mahon to the Group mir-
rors their ambiguous sense of identity and place. Where Heaney's Death of a
Naturalist implies the birth of a poet, one seamlessly giving way to the other,
Mahon's Night-Crossing, even in its title, suggests a permanently transitional
identity split between here and elsewhere. The poems play out a debate be-
tween belonging and not belonging, opening up an ironic distance between
poet and community. Mahon's urbanity becomes a defence against commit-
ment to place, as he simultaneously brings a new conception of urban space
into Irish poetry. Thus, in 'In Belfast' (retitled 'The Spring Vacation'), the
poet, ironically 'Walking among my own', typically finds himself 'between
shower and shower', exhorts his mind to 'know its place', but never claims
actually to do so. 'Glengormley' might have its nostalgia for an era of saints
and heroes, but even if the poem cannot quite bring itself to praise the sub-
urban 'worldly time under this worldly sky', it cannot ignore its existence.49
For Longley, No Continuing City, with its multiple voices, marks perhaps
an even more complex collapse of boundaries in space and time: that there
is no continuing city in material terms suggests both an absence of tradi-
tional and communal stability and, implicitly, a belief in imaginative com-
pensation - poetry displacing conventional religious consolations. Poetry is

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'incorrigible [s]', in 'The Freemartin', but it is also a 'Difficult birth[s]', an


oddment that, like the freemartin, resists categorisation.50 The ambiguity
inherent in this also accords with Longley's own feeling that Mahon and
Heaney began their careers with what he himself lacked - 'recourse to solid
hinterlands - Heaney the much publicized farm in Co. Derry, Mahon his
working class background and the shipyards'.51
The Group, seen as a Belfast-Dublin-London aesthetic collision ground,
also foreshadows in miniature the broader argument that Northern Ireland
itself may be understood as a 'cultural corridor', in which Irish and English
and other influences meet - Ulster is, in Michael Longley's phrase, 'a limbo
between two (three?) cultures'.52 Such a stance denies aesthetic coherence to
the Group - 'northern poets' don't hunt in a pack - but it does also suggest
that Northern Ireland, with its industrialisation, its peculiar tensions and
cross-currents of influence, demands, in Mahon's phrase, a 'different court
of appeal' for its poets 'from that which sits in the South'.53 Both arguments
differ significantly from Boland's earlier implicit assumption that Northern
poets have special (Troubles) responsibilities. They suggest rather a desire to
widen the parameters of what is understood by 'Irish poetry' as this has been
increasingly narrowly defined - an argument made in a different context
by Kavanagh in the 1930s - and to allow for an influx of new ideas and
influences. In that sense, the Trinity experience, with its cross-currents of
influence, also becomes, in retrospect, a mythic paradigm for the aesthetic
principles expounded by Longley and Mahon in the late 1960s and early
1970s.

IV
It is perhaps ironic that Longley's early poems, with their precocious formal
accomplishment, have been less well-served by formalist New Criticism than
Heaney's. One reason may be that they do not lead the reader on a well sign-
posted route to a comprehensible sense of 'identity', 'home', or 'religion'.
Heaney builds a myth of confidence on the back of cultural marginality,
digging deeper and deeper into his home ground for (poetic) nourishment,
continuity and confidence - as Mahon suggests, for Heaney 'each new poem
is an accretion, an addition, a further step along a known road'.54 Longley's
own aesthetic works instead with a deliberate lack of confidence that stands
in marked contrast to his technical accomplishment. The poems unravel po-
tential securities. In 'Emily Dickinson' her poems are 'Gradual as flowers,
gradual as rust' (No Continuing City, 14): each accumulation is also a start-
ing afresh, growth is decline and vice versa, earthly decay (no continuing city)
is imaginative regeneration, the moment of achievement also deconstructs

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itself. Thus, Longley's 'Epithalamion', which opens his first collection, indi-
cates what was and remains the case: that Longley and Heaney, both con-
cerned with form and language, and both implicitly concerned to subvert the
rigidity of the political and religious environments in which they grew up,
nevertheless, and of necessity, work towards those ends in different ways.
Heaney's love poem, 'Scaffolding', builds the scaffolding of the poem and the
relationship, making sure 'that planks won't slip', tightening 'bolted joints'
with formal precision. The wall that is built is 'of sure and solid stone',
able to survive any 'Old bridges breaking' (Death of a Naturalist, 37).
The poem wears its self-reflexivity too much on its sleeve perhaps, but
its construction of an invisible yet ultimately solid support shows some
of the 'inside' workings of Heaney's aesthetic, pre-empting the later imag-
inative ground that is 'Utterly empty, utterly a source'.55 In Longley's
'Epithalamion' (a poem which carries debts to Robert Graves, and to John
Donne), the poem may be the perfected edifice, but its sense works against
that formal stability to leave it with only the hope of 'lingering on': the dark-
ness is finite even as the love seeks infinity. As the poem gathers momentum
through the complex sentence that comprises its first half, the syntax leads
steadily and inevitably towards its centre:

And everything seems bent


On robing in this evening you
And me, all dark the element
Our light is earnest to,

But the centre once reached, when 'dark will be / For ever like this', is also
the point where the poem's centrifugal collapse begins - the 'small hours
widening into day' and into the need to begin all over again:

The two of us . . .
Must hope that in new properties
We'llfinda uniform
To know each other truly by, . . .

In contrast to both, Mahon's 'Preface to a Love Poem', in Night-Crossing,


marks the emergence of the theme that dominates his aesthetic through the
1970s and 1980s: exploring the nature (and inadequacy) of language itself.
'Only words', he writes in 'Glengormley', 'hurt us now'. That ironic revision
of the cliche recognises language as a constraint, as a form of imprisonment
within particular versions of history and identity (a concern in Mahon that
takes on particular resonance in Northern Ireland's own war of words).

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'Preface to a Love Poem' is a 'night cry, neither here nor there', a preface 'at
one remove' from the love poem that cannot exist, a testament to what lies
beyond language - silence. In that sense, it is also possible to see Mahon's
aesthetic, at this time, as working in the opposite direction to Heaney's.
The idea of a 'Northern Renaissance', if it is understood as a 'movement',
suggests the programmatic approach of, for example, British Movement po-
etics in the 1950s, (where in fact the major poetic figure of Philip Larkin
stood to some extent outside any professed agenda). The diversity of the
collections published in the 1960s, the combative poetic environments in
which they were forged, and the development of strong and distinctive po-
etic voices, disallow any easy delineation of a 'group' aesthetic. The different
practices evident in the mid-1960s can be related to a broad range of influ-
ences, but also to the different traditions in the North from which these
poets emerge. Heaney recovers, or in his own language 'restores' a North-
ern Catholic culture against the odds; Longley and Mahon are concerned to
destabilise tradition and language, concerns linked partly to their sense of
Protestantism as a 'religion of the Word', and partly to a desire to undermine
the Protestant tradition's repressive political ethos prior to 1969. Neverthe-
less, some of the shared assumptions do bring a collective argument to bear,
if implicitly, on the contemporary poetry scene, as they also give Northern
poetry a distinctive focus.
Mahon, Longley and Heaney share the sense of art as an alternative spiritu-
ality; in varying degrees, this seemingly 'traditional' or romantic assumption
makes it a mode of subversion all the more telling in a context where sectar-
ianism is rife. They have been called the 'tight-assed trio', formalist poets in
an age of experimentation: as Mahon says, 'No art without the resistance of
the medium'.56 In the 1960s, the assumption that break-up in society should
be mirrored by a break-up in form was perhaps an inevitable outcome of
a popularisation of the 1950s America 'Beat generation' aesthetic, with its
link between experimental form and anti-hierarchical politics. But Northern
poets in the 1960s render the argument that formalism implies political
conservatism redundant. As Mahon puts it in 'Death of a Film Star' in Night-
Crossing: 'when an immovable body meets an ir-/Resistible force, something
has got to give'. While their poetry can be read as a response to the violent
consequences of the break-up of rigid and divisive political structures in the
North after 1969, it is also, before 1969, one manifestation of the 'new
energy' that helps to engender that break up. As with Yeats earlier, form
can become a form of resistance, an antithetical art. In that sense, Northern
poetry's radical formalism raises questions as to whether experimentalism
may become its own form of conservatism.

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NOTES
1 Irish Times, 14 August 1970, p. 12.
2 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W.B.Yeats, 2nd edn. (London: Faber and Faber,
1967), p. 191.
3 Richard Kirkland, Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland Since 1965:
Moments of Danger (London: Longman, 1996), p. 59.
4 John Hewitt, 'Regionalism: The Last Chance', 1947, Ancestral Voices: the
Selected Prose of John Hewitt, ed. Tom Clyde (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987),
p. 125.
5 John Montague, 'Scylla and Charybdis', Watching the River Flow: A Century in
Irish Poetry, ed. Noel Duffy and Theo Dorgan (Dublin: Poetry Ireland, 1999),
p. 105.
6 Derek Mahon, 'Introduction', The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry (London:
Sphere Books, 1972), p. 14.
7 John Montague, The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays (New York: Syracuse
University Press, 1989), pp. 8-9.
8 The Figure in the Cave, pp. 8, 36-7.
9 Robert F. Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to
Heaney (Berkeley Sc London: University of California Press, 1986), p. 201.
10 The Figure in the Cave, pp. 18-19.
11 John Montague, The Rough Field, 3rd edn. (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979),
P-83-
12 Derek Mahon, 'Each Poem for me is a New Beginning', interview by Willie Kelly,
The Cork Review 2.3 (June 1981), p. 10.
13 Michael Longley, The Longley Tapes', interview by Robert Johnstone, Honest
Ulsterman, 78 (Summer 1985), p. 23; Derek Mahon, 'Poetry in Northern Ireland',
Twentieth Century Studies, 4 (Nov. 1970), p. 90; Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations:
Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 28. It is worth
noting that Heaney modifies this view in the 1990s, arguing that there was a
literary life in Queen's University before the Group, though it had scattered. See
Reading the Future: Irish Writers in Conversation with Mike Murphy (Dublin:
Lilliput Press, 2000), p. 84.
14 See A. Alvarez, 'Introduction', The New Poetry (London: Penguin, 1962)
p. 28.
15 ' "The Colony" appeared . . . in 1953, but no one seems to have paid much
heed. When, however, in the winter of 1970 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland
organised a tour of poetry readings by John Montague and myself .. . this time it
secured some attention ...'. John Hewitt, 'No Rootless Colonist', 1972, Ancestral
Voices, p. 155. Hewitt's own Collected Poems appeared in 1968.
16 'Canal Bank Walk', The Complete Poems (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1964),
P- 2-94-
17 Michael Longley, 'A Boat on the River', Watching the River Flow, p. 137.
18 Thomas Kinsella, 'Introduction', The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (Oxford
University Press, 1986), p. xxx.
19 Derek Mahon, Interview by William Scammell, Poetry Review 81.2 (Summer
1991), p. 5.
20 Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland, p. 75.

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21 Seamus Heaney, 'Calling the Tune', an interview by Tom Adair, Linen Hall Review
6.2 (Autumn 1989), p. 5.
22 Derek Mahon, 'An interview by Terence Brown', Poetry Ireland Review
14 (Autumn 1985), pp. 12-13; 'Q & A with Derek Mahon', Irish Literary
Supplement (Fall 1991), p. 28; interview by William Scammell, Poetry Review,
p. 5.
23 Philip Hobsbaum, A Theory of Communication (London: Macmillan, 1970),
p. 165.
24 Edward Lucie-Smith, 'Foreword', A Group Anthology, ed. Edward Lucie-Smith
and Philip Hobsbaum (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. vii.
25 'The Longley Tapes', p. 22.
26 'The Belfast Group: A Symposium', Honest Ulsterman 54 (Nov/Dec 1976),
p. 61.
27 Ibid., p. 54.
28 See Heaney's contribution to 'The Belfast Group: A Symposium', pp. 62-3, repr.
in Preoccupations, pp. 28-30.
29 Norman Dugdale, 'The Belfast Group', Honest Ulsterman yj (Spring 1994),
p. 4.
30 Preoccupations, pp. 28-9.
31 See Michael Allen, 'Introduction', Seamus Heaney: Contemporary Critical Essays
(London: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 1-17.
32 Patrick Kavanagh, 'The Parish and the Universe', Collected Pruse. London:
MacGibbon &c Kee, 1967, p. 282; also Complete Poems, p. 238.
33 Door into the Dark (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), pp. 41-2.
34 Preoccupations, p. 29.
35 Reading the Future, p. 86.
36 Heaney quoted in Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber,
1986), p. 95.
37 For further discussion of this point see David Lloyd,' "Pap for the dispossessed":
Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity', in Seamus Heaney, ed. Michael Allen,
p. 165.
38 Heaney in Reading the Future, pp. 84-5; Preoccupations, p. 41.
39 Reading the Future, p. 123.
40 See, for example, Heaney's own more restrained comments on the Group in an
interview with Frank Kinahan, Critical Inquiry, 8.3 (Spring 1982), p. 408.
41 Interview with William Scammell, Poetry Review, p. 4.
42 Q 8c A with Derek Mahon, Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1991), p. 27.
43 Reading the Future, p. 123.
44 Derek Mahon. 'Introduction', The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry,
p. 14.
45 Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland
(Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1994), p. 19.
46 Quoted in Richard Kirkland, Literature and Culture, p. 81.
47 Ibid.
48 Interview with William Scammell, Poetry Review, p. 4.
49 Night-Crossing (Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 5-6.
50 No Continuing City (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 45.
51 Michael Longley, 'Strife and the Ulster Poet', Hibernia (7 Nov. 1969), p. 11.

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52 Michael Longley, 'The Neolithic Night: A Note on the Irishness of Louis Mac-
Neice', Two Decades of Irish Writing, ed. Douglas Dunn (Manchester: Carcanet
Press, 1975), P. 99-
53 Mahon, 'Poetry in Northern Ireland', p. 90.
54 'Each Poem for me is a New Beginning', interview by Willie Kelly, Cork Review
2.3 (June 1981), p. 12.
55 Heaney, The Haw Lantern (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 32.
56 Interview with William Scammell, Poetry Review, p. 5.

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7
DILLON JOHNSTON

Violence in Seamus Heaney's poetry

hung in the scales


with beauty and atrocity
('The Grauballe Man')
If, as Seamus Heaney says, quoting Borges, 'poetry lies in the meeting of poem
and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages',1 then we might
recognise that the issues involved in the depiction of violence may differ
from reader to reader or, more generally, from one national readership -
in this case Irish, British, or American and other Anglophone readers - to
another. We know readers have registered their approval of Heaney's poetry
in the salesfiguresof Waterstone's, Barnes & Noble's, and other booksellers,
and this popularity has been confirmed by most of the prizes. Yet reviewers
who might represent these readerships have differed widely in their responses
to what the Swedish Academy praised as Heaney's 'analysis of the violence
in Northern Ireland'.2
This controversy moved to the centre of Heaney criticism with the pub-
lication of the poet's fourth book North (1975). Among the majority of
British critics who praised the book, Neil Corcoran differed from most in
his understanding of colonial politics in Ireland and his sympathy with op-
posing positions. He characterised North as 'necessary poems' because they
'articulate those elements of resentment and hostility at the bottom of the
republican-nationalist psyche . . .' but do so 'oppressively, self-laceratingly,
constrictedly . . .'.3 The American critic Helen Vendler offers nearly un-
qualified approval of North as 'one of the crucial poetic interventions of the
twentieth century', but she refuses to read the volume as a political statement,
such readings of lyric poetry being, in her view, 'a fundamental philosoph-
ical mistake'.4 Less sure of Heaney's achievement, Blake Morrison wrote
that in certain poems in North, Heaney's 'poetry grants sectarian killing in
Northern Ireland a historical respectability which it is not usually granted in
day-to-day journalism'.5 Among the volume's detractors, Belfast critic Edna

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Longley and the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson reject Part Fs ritualising and
mythologising of murder which risk making Heaney, in Carson's phrase,
'the laureate of violence'.6
Although from autumn of 1968 on - after the publication of his first
two volumes - historical events in Northern Ireland provided Heaney with
images of public violence, from the beginning his poetry dwelt on rural
violence and the country attitude towards death. He wrote out of his own
background as the first of nine children born to a laconic cattle-dealer and
small farmer and his more verbally animated wife. Born on the forty-acre
farm called Mossbawn on the north side of Lough Neagh in the east of Co
Derry, he might have lived his life among small farmers,fishermenand village
merchants, had not the 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act allowed him
to attend on scholarship St Columb's College in Derry and then Queen's
University, Belfast, and, in Michael Parker's words, began 'to prise open a
gap between him and his parents'.7 Poems of the first volume Death of A
Naturalist (1966) reveal the sensitive rural youth building in language and
verse-structures a stay against farmyard barbarity and the violence of nature,
in order 'to see myself, he says in 'Personal Helicon', 'to set the darkness
echoing'.8 Among these poems are a group, 'morbid in their infatuation with
grotesque detail', according to one American critic,9 that can also suggest
Heaney's political uncertainty.
'The Early Purges' (Death of Naturalist, 23), for example, seems at first
reading built on opposing urban and rural attitudes toward cruelty, partly in-
fluenced by Ted Hughes's poems exploring 'the arrogance of blood and bone'.
But Heaney's tone is uncertain. The poem's speaker mixes general popular
assertions with the farmer's saws ('"Prevention of cruelty" talk cuts ice in
town') and the boy's reactions ('I just shrug'), so that irony is directed both
at the animal-rights sentimentalist and the strong farmer. While at the time
of this poem's composition, the summer of 1964, Heaney may have been, as
Parker says, 'young, relatively unpolitical', he would have observed decades
of sectarian politics, a secondary topic of this poem. Although the Taggarts
of Derry are not Calvinists (their minds 'a white-washed kitchen/hung with
texts . . .',10 as Heaney says of another neighbour in Wintering Out, 1972),
Dan Taggart participates in the terseness that characterises both sides of
the Northern farming community, and he seems given to facile summaries,
such as his 'Sure isn't it better for them now', a sentiment not shared by the
drowning kittens, their 'soft paws scraping like mad'. The tercets - seven,
mostly end-stopped stanzas that rhyme aba but eschew the ongoing narra-
tive thrust of terza rima - effectively convey Taggart's disconnected adages
that substitute for ratiocination or more engaged, ongoing thinking.

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In this and other poems in the first two volumes, the 'grotesque detail'
concerns fears in the boy more than the sinister in nature, as the second
tercet reveals:
Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
Of the pump and the water pumped in.
The eye-rhyme and assonance of 'tiny din', which also evokes tin, are en-
jambed into the next line's variation of o, oo, ou, and u sounds that ac-
company the drowning. The repetition of the plosive pump and pumped in
completes the drowning and allows the sound associated with the kittens,
in, finally to bob to the surface, as it were. The simile that conveys the im-
age of the kittens - 'Like wet gloves that bobbed and shone . . .' - hides
metonymically the agents of death, Taggart's hands within the gloves. With-
out reading into this image too much of the later, subtler Heaney, we can
observe two implications. First, the hidden hand suggests the governmental
procedure by which all citizens, subalterns as well as colonisers, help govern
the body politic. Second, the mystery of death transpires beneath the water's
troubled surface, concealed from the rational, enquiring eye. As suggested
in 'Sunlight', a prologue poem to North, Heaney evokes, when he cannot
depict, what is 'sunk past its gleam' within the unconscious.
From his earliest poetry, certainly from 'Personal Helicon' onward, the
poetic speaker's direction was downward, through digging, the 'dark drop',
soundings, or 'striking inward and downwards'. Such probings are part of
the poet's effort to define the self, in great part by characterising what is not-
self and part of the unconscious, both of himself and of his society. The boy's
first-person probings of the sources of his own fear, central to the first volume,
are replaced in the second volume by the adult's presentation, as in 'Vision',
'The Forge', and 'The Outlaw'. In North, Heaney's psychological intentions
are obscured by the accidental conjunction of history - his personal discovery
of P.V. Glob's The Bog People and the resumption of the Troubles. During the
composition and publication of Heaney's first two books, Northern Ireland
had remained restless but peaceful. Early in 1967, inspired in part by the Civil
Rights movement in the US, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
was founded in Belfast and joined by many of Heaney's students at Queens.
Civil rights marches began in August 1968. Eliciting unrestrained police
batoning as well as provocative behaviour from diehard loyalists, they soon
drew in both the British army and the IRA. Although Heaney participated
in at least one march, for many months of the first years of the Troubles
he was away from the North, travelling in Spain on a fellowship, teaching

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in Berkeley, and finally moving to Wicklow in 1972, which would lead to a


permanent residence in Dublin.
Heaney's departure from the North hardly eased the pressure on the poet
to address issues of the Troubles, to speak out for justice, or otherwise to
affirm, in Seamus Deane's words, 'thefidelityof the poet to his community'.11
Looking back from the present, Heaney's choices may seem determined.
Helen Vendler judges that the Troubles 'forced Heaney (who had been raised
a Catholic) into becoming a poet of public as well as private life' (Seamus
Heaney, 1). In reviewing Electric Light (2001), Landon Hammer asserts that
'when Heaney began to publish poems, the mere presence of his first name
in print had a political force, since it marked him as Catholic and therefore
a minority speaker in Northern Ireland, and he learned to weigh the public
resonance of every poem'.12 In 1975 Conor Cruise O'Brien read North with
much the same sense of Heaney's limited choices: 'Yeats was free to try . . . on
different relations to the tragedy. Heaney's relation to a deeper tragedy is
fixed and pre-ordained'.13 Yet, Heaney was not the first Catholic poet from
Ulster to write about the Troubles, and from the model of John Montague's
Poisoned Lands, which Heaney read in 1963, but especially The Rough
Field in 1972, he could find both encouragement and the basis for his own
independent approach to the Troubles. Because Montague composed most of
The Rough Field before the re-eruption of the Troubles, he sees the sectarian
tensions of Ulster through the lenses of Elizabethan and Victorian history and
the multi-layered, dream-like perspective of autobiography, 'the bleak moors
of dream'. While history and autobiography - the return to a homeland from
which he is permanently separated - give Montague's multivoiced narrative
greater coolness and distance, Heaney employs myth - images of the bog
burials that are detailed and obsessive - and his own composed voice to give
warmth and immediacy to his more current account of the Troubles.
Heaney's third volume Wintering Out (1972) reveals the poet's concern
for continuity between his chosen craft and those of his community. More
plausibly than in 'Digging', where pen and spade are finally discontinuous,
the analogues between the poet and local craftsmen are extended from such
artisans in Door Into the Dark as the blacksmith and the thatcher to more
marginal figures, such as the 'Servant Boy' and isolated women in Wintering
Out. He often slips from T to 'we', and in a half-dozen poems he grounds the
poet's language in the wet and rocky aspects of his landscape, as he proclaims
himself 'lobe and larynx/of the mossy places' (Wintering Out, 28). With a
few exceptions, the poems of Wintering Out back off from violence or signal
it obliquely in 'semaphores of hurt. . .' (74).
The most direct representation of violence in this volume occurs in 'The
Tollund Man', a prototype of the bog poems in North and Heaney's first

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creative response to the rich imagistic mine of RV. Glob's The Bog People,
an archaelogical study of Iron Age corpses recovered from Jutland bogs. 14
In 1974 Heaney said that his profound response to the photographs of these
sacrificial victims to the earth goddess Nerthus arose from their parallel to
'the tradition of Irish political martyrdom . . . whose icon is Kathleen Ni
Houlihan'. He continued, This is more than an archaic barbarous rite: it is
an archetypal pattern'. 15 Consequently, one of these recoveries, the Tollund
Man, who is described as a 'bridegroom' to the fertility goddess in the poem's
first section, is asked to 'make germinate' the bodies of four brothers killed
in sectarian violence in the 1920s. Most of the final section records the poet's
imagined response as he makes his pilgrimage to this corpse's site in Jutland.
Neil Corcoran finds the emotional centre of this poem elsewhere than does
Heaney in his 1974 comments. The critic argues that while the analogy
between sacrificial killings in Jutland and political murder in Ireland 'clearly
supplies the poem with its structure and its rationale, the connection that
actually supplies its emotional sustenance is that between the Tollund man
and Heaney himself.
Corcoran concludes,

In placing its emotional weight where it does, on the relationship between


poet and evoked human figure, The Tollund Man' . . . dissolves its more
ambitious mythical elements into something sharply immediate: the pain of
personal incomprehension, isolation and pity.16

So 'sharply immediate' is this relationship between poetic persona and this


mysterious corpse that the structure of the sentence reflects this emotional
disturbance:

In the flat country nearby


Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.

By the time we recover the structure of the simple sentence - 'In the flat
country . . . I will stand. . . .' - we will have had to blink at the way the
participle naked modifies the poet and risks burlesque. If Parker can say that
this goddess has a 'soft spot' for her bridegroom, then we might venture
that the dangling modifier confuses the identity of poet and victim so that
both, through the poet's sympathy and voyeurism, are indecently exposed.
We might go beyond Corcoran's supposition about the poet's emotions to

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suggest that one level of this response must arise from a perfection of the
photographic images down to fingerprints that have survived centuries of
destruction. That this is one of the poet's deepest wishes, to make poems
equally impervious to time, Heaney recognises particularly in North where
in his 'blazon of sweet beauty's best' - such as the wrist, heel, instep, and
chin of 'the Grauballe Man' - he competes with the bog to immortalise
distinguishing details of the individual.
Published in 1975, North quickly became, and has remained, Heaney's
most celebrated and controversial volume. It opens with two prefatory
poems, then Part I - a long section on the Antaeus myth, bog-burials,
Viking myth and art, turbary linguistics, porno-cartography, and tupping-
topography - and a briefer Part II, in which the poet comments more person-
ally on the Troubles. The publicist's blurb for North declares 'Heaney has
found a myth which . . . gives the book direction, cohesion and cumulative
power' and renders this volume 'more profound and authoritative' than his
previous books. Most critics focus on Part I, many treating it as just such a
myth of Northern violence as a response and tribute to an earth goddess for
whom the bog-burials, no less than the current sectarian homicides, provide
sacrificial victims.
One may derive a mythic notion from North, but the poems are too ex-
ploratory, tentative, and dialectical to compose a coherent myth. For exam-
ple, in 'Kinship' the poet makes no serious claims for the originary myths that
might relate current Irish homicides to the Jutland victims: 'I step through
origins/like a dog turning/in memories of wilderness/on the kitchen mat'.17
Although the Irish and Danes share bogland, Heaney does not extend to
the Danish his sense of gendered vowels and consonants: 'This is the vowel
of earth/dreaming its root/in flowers and snow/ as the maternal seed-bed
is sown in the contrasting seasons of spring and winter. This section IV of
'Kinship' opens with a contradiction of Yeats's 'Second Coming' as Corcoran
points out: 'This centre holds/... /sump and seedbed'. Where Yeats envisions
the dissolution of an historical epoch within a broader historiographical pat-
tern, Heaney affirms a non-historical, generative basis for life. The section
ends: 'I grew out of all this/like a weeping willow/inclined to/the appetites
of gravity' (North, 43) which intends to say not much more than 'dust to
dust'. 'Funeral Rites' and 'North' evade history by linking prehistoric Ireland
with Norse legend. Recent victims interred within the passage graves of the
Boyne valley link by simile to the poet-hero of Njal's Saga, as surrogate
for Heaney, making poetry amid violence. Revisiting the setting of 'Shore-
line' from Door Into the Dark, 'North' conjures from 'the secular/powers
of the Atlantic thundering' voices 'warning me, lifted again/in violence
and epiphany' (North, 19). Although some irony and linguistic complexity

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(e.g. 'The longship's swimming tongue//was buoyant with hindsight') may


qualify our sense that Heaney is forcing mythic connections, the author of
these three poems might fairly be labelled, as Carson does, 'a mythmaker,
an anthropologist of ritual killing, and . . . in the last resort, a mystifier'.18
Other poems in Part I, however, explore the implications of Glob's pho-
tographs and dramatise the poet's response rather than imposing meaning.
'Punishment' begins with the poet's reaction ('I can feel . . .', 'I can see . . .',
'I almost love . . .') to photographs of the Windeby girl who at the hands of
the tribe suffered death for adultery. The poet compares this 'tribal, intimate
revenge' to pitchcapping of Catholic girls in the North for consorting with
British soldiers. He confesses that he

. . . would have cast, I know


the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur.

Corcoran identifies the Biblical reference to the girl taken in adultery in


'John: 8'. Heaney confesses that he would have violated Christ's injunction
not to judge, on the basis of our common human frailty, and he thereby
emphasises his own human weakness. His role as 'artful voyeur' is a cor-
ruption of his function as poetic observer, and his silence threatens to turn
poetic detachment, which he once defended before British journalists as 'a
fine, well-earned and constantly renewed condition', into the indifference
which he decried in that same speech.19
The poem concludes by representing the ambivalence of the poet,

who would connive


in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Quoting these lines, Edna Longley writes,

This is all right if Heaney is merely being 'outrageously honest about his own
reactions, if the paradox 'connive ... civilized' is designed to corner people who
think they have risen above the primitive, if the poem exposes a representative
Irish conflict between 'humane reason' and subconscious allegiances.
(Longley, 154)

Although Longley is sceptical, Heaney, in an interview with Seamus Deane


soon after the publication of North, insists on maintaining 'a dialogue'
between the 'obstinate voice of rationalist humanism' and that of tribal
atavisms (Deane, 63). In 'Punishment' and a few other poems in North,
such as 'The Grauballe Man' and 'Hercules and Antaeus', we can recognise

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what Heaney calls 'dithering', what Yeats would call 'vacillation', and what
we might call a dialectic.
Longley would withhold this designation from 'Bog Queen' which she ar-
gues 'renews that well-worn genre the aisling by presenting Ireland as her
landscape, weather, geography and history, and by pushing her "old hag"
incarnation to an extreme' (Longley, 79). Without specifying this eighteenth-
century Irish genre, Corcoran agrees: 'Bog Queen' is 'a kind of Kathleen ni
Houlihan, a kind of Mother Ireland... a symbol for disaffected native resent-
ment, biding its time underground ...'. (Corcoran, Seamus Heaney, 114). To
read this poem as an aisling, we might expect the attributes of this corpse,
found in Co Down in the eighteenth century, to be more specifically Irish
rather than 'Baltic' or 'phoenician' or Nordic, feeling 'the nuzzle of fjords',
and we could expect some final rebirth or disclosure to reveal or promise
a radiant Ireland. The emotional centre of the poem, however, is Heaney's
lifelong fascination with the body and with its relation to spirit. This ca-
daver offers herself for interpretation and meaning: 'My body was braille';
'the illiterate roots/pondered . . .'; her gemstones are 'like the bearings of
history', but she can no more undergo the 'triumphant re-birth' some critics
attribute to her (Parker, 136) than she can emerge into the light of reason
and understanding. She is interwoven into the bog by apocopated rhyme:

wrinkling, dyed weaves


and phoenician stitchwork
retted on my breasts'
soft moraines.
I knew winter cold
like the nuzzle of fjords
at my thighs -
the soakedfledge,the heavy
swaddle of hides.

She disintegrates into a paratactic series of parts as she emerges from the
dark of the unconscious into the light of reason:

and I rose from the dark,


hacked bone, skull-ware,
frayed stitches, tufts,
small gleams on the bank.

To paraphrase Yeats, Heaney cannot know rationally what the body as


matter means; he can only 'embody' this in a poem, which he does here

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successfully. Heaney has every right to explore and dramatise his own irra-
tional, atavistic responses to death and violence. As he said in regard to 'The
Tollund Man': 'And just how persistent the barbaric attitudes are, not only
in the slaughter but in the psyche, I discovered, again when the frisson of
the poem itself had passed . . .' (Preoccupations, 59). Complaints become
legitimate, however, concerning those few poems where he suggests that the
violence in Northern Ireland and ancient Denmark are cognate and deter-
mined by psychological forces present in ancient Northern rituals of sacri-
fice, a suggestion supported by neither argument nor real evidence. These
poems are too few, however, to justify Carson's assertion that all of Part I
belongs to 'the laureate of violence'. If critics are fair in finding Carson's re-
view 'fiercely hostile', 20 the basis for such hostility might lodge in the word
laureate as much as in violence.
In spite of the differences between the two parts of North and among
the four primary texts Heaney had published, readers recognise the poet's
voice and his positioning of himself as the poet, representative of his tribe
and, progressively, of poetry. Even in his most dramatic poems, such as the
monologues of Station Island, the voice in the poem remains familiar and
the persona congenial and, usually, trustworthy. In a 1974 lecture, Heaney
offers his popular poem 'Digging' as 'an example of what we call "finding a

Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own
words;... a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet's
natural voice.... A voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique
signature. . . . (Preoccupations, 43)

What Heaney characterises as a writer's aspiration, Ian Gregson believes


Heaney had already fully established:

As always when reading Heaney, there is a strong sense of the implied author:
one of his most remarkable achievements has been to construct a version of
himself as a poet which his readers recognise. This is partly a matter of his
public persona, the 50-ish year old public smiling man . . . old-fashioned as a
poet should be, and above all actually a very nice man.21

Whereas Gregson speaks of constructing a persona, Heaney would find or


disclose it, sometimes delving to recover some more original or authentic
self. In that frequently quoted interview with Deane in 1977, Heaney stated,
'Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self. But that self
in some ways takes its spiritual pulse from the inwards spiritual structure of
the community to which it belongs' (Deane, 62).

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A dozen years later in a lecture at Oxford, Heaney said,

In emergent cultures the struggle of an individual consciousness towards affir-


mations and distinctness may be analogous, if not coterminous, with a collec-
tive straining toward self-definition; there is a mutual susceptibility between
the formation of a new tradition and the self-fashioning of individual talent.
{Redress of Poetry, 6)

The echoes of Eliot and Arnold are appropriate for a poet establishing conti-
nuities and differences between himself and guardians of English culture. The
author of Tradition and the Individual Talent' meant by tradition the canon
of European Christendom rather than the Catholic nationalist community
of Northern Ireland and by individual talent a depersonalised, 'transforming
catalyst' 22 rather than Heaney's integrated poetic persona.
Poets such as Kinsella, Carson, Muldoon and Ni Chuilleanain, who offer
fragmented selves and deflect personality, may question the value of such
a consistently recognisable voice. David Lloyd, perhaps Heaney's harshest
critic, identifies this 'strong sense of the implied author' with conservatism
and caution:

The cautious limits which Heaney's poetry sets round any potential for disrup-
tive, immanent questioning may be the reason for the extraordinary inflation
of his current reputation. If Heaney is held to be 'the most trusted poet of
our [sic] islands', by the same token he is the most institutionalized of recent
poets.23

Lloyd's sic refers to the proprietariness of the English critic Christopher


Ricks, whom he is quoting. Ricks's trust in Heaney, no doubt, was grounded
on Heaney's frank rebukes to English audiences and critics who were hon-
ouring him. For example, in 1983 he reminded editors who had made him
the keystone in an anthology of 'British' poetry that 'No glass of ours was
ever raised/To toast The Queen\Z4 and in 1988 upon receiving the Sunday
Times Award, the skald turned scold as he candidly told an admiring
English audience that 'policies which Downing Street presumably regards
as a hard line against terrorism can feel like a high-handed disregard for the
self-respect of the Irish people in general'. 25
Nevertheless, the esteemed English poet and critic Donald Davie, shortly
before his death in 1995, offered Heaney remarkable praise:

In the world of English language poetry Seamus Heaney has . . . a position


of unchallenged authority. And that is a boon for all of us who inhabit that
world; one shudders to think how it would have been for the rest of us if that
authority, earned by solid accomplishment, had been vested in a person less
generous and less prudent.... It is a main part of Heaney's claim upon us that

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he has offered that romantic role, refused the privileges that it offered him. He
has consistently refused, in the face of tempting offers, to be either outlandish
or partisan.26

Such praise, not unique to Davie, may account for some of Heaney's own
uneasiness as he balances tribal solidarity with his individual role as the rep-
resentative poet. As he and many Northern poets - Catholic and Protestant -
must have recognised, for critics and readers along the English mainstream,
Irish poets were, literally, outlandish and partisan.
To varying degrees in his next two volumes, Heaney's uneasiness will ac-
company the treatment of violence that appears in elegies in Field Work
(1979) and poems that bear witness in Station Island (1984). The poems of
witness in Cantos VII & VIII of 'Station Island' depart from Heaney's inten-
tion in the elegies of Field Work - 'The Strand at Lough Beg', 'A Postcard
from North Antrim', and 'Casualty' - 'to assuage', in Parker's words, 'his
sense of loss, and to strike sharp, clear notes in celebration' (Parker, 159).
The first of these elegies 'The Strand at Lough Beg' offers gripping details
of Colum McCartney's fatal outing and of his grisly corpse. However, from
the Dantean epigraph through the recognition that the legendary, Heaney-
resurrected Sweeney fled along this same road, we know we are travelling
a parallel but separate course, between which and the actuality of death is
what Heaney will later call 'the frontier of writing'. These three elegies close
with evocations of Dante, perhaps of The Odyssey, and of literary ghosts,
such as Hamlet's father or the Yeats-Swift apparition from T.S. Eliot's
'Little Gidding' (in Four Quartets), as the three victims, all 'dawn-sniffing
revenants', observe new curfews and haunt new margins between mortality
and literary memorial. The comfort Heaney brings to the reader and to the
memory of McCartney, Armstrong and O'Neill derives from the elegiac and
legendary side of this divide.
While the poems about victims of violence in the sequence 'Station Island'
are as meticulously formed and phrased as the three poems in Field Work,
they differ from these elegies by conveying what Heaney ascribes to poets of
witness, 'the impulse to elevate truth above beauty'.27 He writes, '"The poet
as witness" . . . represents poetry's solidarity with the doomed, the deprived,
the victimized, the under-privileged' (Government of the Tongue, xvi), so
that the poet, who offered ablutions at the end of 'The Strand at Lough
Beg', now yields to the victim's viewpoint and voice which upbraids the poet
because he 'drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorial and saccharined my
death with morning dew'.28 The aestheticising of brutal history, for which
Heaney's character upbraids him, was denounced especially by the post-war
East European poets whom Heaney was reading in the late 1970s:

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In the words of Zbigniew Herbert, the task of the poet now was 'to salvage
out of the catastrophe of history at least two words, without which all poetry
is an empty play of meanings and appearances, namely: justice and truth'.
(Government of the Tongue, xviii)

Perhaps the narrow but important distinction between elegy and witness
emerges most clearly in Canto VII, in which a pharmacist and former football
teammate William Strathearn recounts his own late-night murder by two
off-duty policemen who roused him from his sleep and shot him through the
head. Eschewing the Dantean locomotor of terza rima^ Heaney gains some of
his master's momentum by employing independent tercets rhyming aba cdc
but whose lines are rarely end-stopped (e.g. lines from the first seven tercets
end in only one full stop). Rhyme is usually slant and dissembling,firstand
third words sometimes claiming kinship through concept rather than sound:
'. . . behind the curtain/ . . . with the doors open';'. . . end-all/ . . . jail'; and,
most indicative of 'the impulse to elevate truth above beauty', '. . . sports-
coat/ . . . racket', where for meter and rhyme, 'jacket' would seem the obvious
choice but where 'sportscoat' makes a slightly more precise class distinction.
Whereas in Field Work the poet performs ablutions, invites the victim to
'Get up from your blood on the floor', and challenges him to 'Question me
again', in 'Station Island' he apologises for the elegist's self-reflective pre-
sumption and returns Strathearn to his mutilated body - 'a stun of pain
seemed to go through him' - an archaeologist friend dead at 32 to his dis-
appointment, and his cousin McCartney to his rage. So caustic is the self-
criticism of these cantos and so graphic the representation of atrocities that
one might have expected Heaney to continue such witness, at least for the
duration of the Troubles.
A reader might be surprised, consequently, that violence vanishes from
Heaney's next two volumes, appearing only occasionally and at a remove in
The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991). In The Haw Lantern
the one poem that explicitly represents an aspect of the Troubles 'From the
Frontier of Writing'29 may also offer clues to the cessation of hostilities
elsewhere in this volume and the next. The first four tercets of the poem
recount the anxiety and affront many Irish experienced in crossing through
British-manned border-checkpoints.
The tightness and the nilness round that space
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face
towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

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Beginning with so, a word that will serve many purposes for Heaney but
which here means 'in a similar fashion', the next four tercets repeat much
of the content of the poem's first half. Helen Vendler asks, 'Did the (real)
road-block turn up as a metaphor for a creative block, or did the subjugation
of the writer at a real road-block make him aware of an inner equivalent
when writing?' (Vendler, 117) If we look at the closing two tercets, we might
find a variation of the second reading more plausible:

And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,


as if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road
past armour-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

In the first dozen lines, the windscreen provides the poet a clear view of
menacing sharpshooters. The second version tames the threat into 'posted
soldiers' who metamorphose 'like tree shadows' in the glass. This windscreen
transforms its subject less like Joyce's 'cracked looking glass of a servant' than
like Wordsworth's transforming memory which in Book IV of The Prelude
blends the reflection and motion of 'one downbending from the side/Of a
slow-moving boat' (247-8) with the submerged contents and current of the
stream.
'From the Frontier of Writing' reminds us that from his beginning Heaney's
poems about violence have all carried as subtexts - explored or unexplored -
questions about the relation of art to life, about those spaces where poetry
impinges on political reality and vice versa and which Conor Cruise O'Brien
had sign-posted as 'an unhealthy intersection'. 30 Heaney's Ellmann lectures
at Emory, one year after the publication of The Haw Lantern, locate this
junction in the work of post-colonial writers:

Irish poets, Polish poets, South African poets, West Indian poets (those in
London as well as those in the Caribbean) and many others . . . have been
caught at a crossroads where the essentially aesthetic demand of their voca-
tion encountered the different demand that their work participate in a general
debate which . . . concerns the political rights and cultural loyalties of different
social or racial groups resulting from separate heritages . . .3I

In The Haw Lantern this crossroads becomes more like parallel motor-
ways, roads leading through the Republic of Conscience or the Canton of
Expectation or the land visited by mud visions that offer a perspective on
the accustomed world without intersecting its path. In a 1988 interview with
Rand Brandes, Heaney admitted that 'some of the poems are abstracted

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versions of what has been fleshed out already in other things, poems of an
allegorical s o r t . . .' 32 Helen Vendler speaks of 'the allegorical and parabolic
poetry' of The Haw Lantern, but more helpfully she characterises this volume
as 'Heaney's first book of the virtual' (113). We benefit from this characterisa-
tion of imaginary space - the realm of the aesthetic, peatbog preservations,
memorialised life, spaces held out of, while reflecting on, time - because
virtual avoids the conventional Otherworld of Irish narratives and substi-
tutes a universal concept familiar to children and other cyberspace-cadets
while remaining mysterious to adult readers.
Heaney's reflections on the imaginative world and the world we think
we share find full expression in The Redress of Poetry published in 1995
from lectures delivered at Oxford University between 1989 and 1994 when
Heaney was Professor of Poetry. He concludes this volume with a simplified
version of these two worlds:

Within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which
we might call the practical and the poetic;... each form of knowledge redresses
the other and . . . the frontier between them is there for the crossing. (203)
He then cites a poem from Seeing Things (1991) based on a meeting of these
two worlds as recorded in The Annals of the Four Masters. A ship from
the Otherworld gets its tackle accidentally entangled in the altar rail of an
oratory. The poem concludes:
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'
The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.33
He opens The Redress of Poetry by speaking about 'crossing from the domain
of the matter-of-fact into the domain of the imagined' (xiii), but as we see
from the Annals poem, in Seeing Things traffic sails both ways.
However, as he develops and extends his idea of redress, the metaphor
of traffic and crossroads yields to an unstated metaphor of a thin parti-
tion between these two worlds: 'The nobility of poetry says Wallace Stevens
"is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without". It
is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality' (Redress
of Poetry, 1). The 'frontier of writing' becomes then a scrim or narrow
boundary - what Paul Muldoon has written about, the feth fiada or mist-
curtain which separates this world from the Irish Otherworld. 34 From
either side public reality and personal imagination contend. From within

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the imagined and poetic, the writer seeks 'reparation of, satisfaction or com-
pensation for, a wrong sustained or the loss resulting from this' (Redress of
Poetry, 15). More generally, poetry redresses by restoring balance or direc-
tion. Poetry does not transgress this boundary but rather exerts its pressure
from its own transformative realm:

Even when the redress of poetry is operative in the first sense in which I em-
ployed it - poetry, that is, being instrumental in adjusting and correcting imbal-
ances in the world . . . - even then, poetry is involved with supreme fictions ... a
world to which 'we turn incessantly and without knowing it'. (192.)

One gathers from the discussion of John Hewitt in the concluding lecture in
this volume that poetic redress within the realm of one audience, in this case
Northern Ireland, may redress differently or not redress at all an imbalance
in a larger realm, such as the United Kingdom or the West.
This distinction becomes important in understanding the shift back from
celebrating the miraculousness of this world in Seeing Things to depicting
extreme violence in The Spirit Level (1996). 'Keeping Going' eulogises the
poet's brother for maintaining his equanimity in the face of Northern Ire-
land's atrocities, a balance he achieves through a transformative imagina-
tion. The souvenir for this transformation, a whitewash brush that served
as a sporran in the brother's clowning, can continue to redress because like
the mug with a cornflower pattern from 'Station Island, X', once it has
crossed the frontier into the imaginative realm, it remains 'glamoured from
this translation' (Station Island, 87). The poem ends with the gesture of one
just back or about to enter that otherworld: 'Then rubbing your eyes and
seeing our old brush/Up on the byre door, and keeping going'.35 This icon of
redress, however, must weigh against the art-enhanced horror of a murder
in the town centre of a part-time reservist, a memory that re-emerges for the
brother in the steam of his morning gruel:

Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood


In spatters on the whitewash. A clean spot
Where his head had been, other stains subsumed
In the parched wall he leant his back against

The poet's representation of memory - the transitional gruel, the animistic


'parched', 'whitewash' connecting the murder scene to the brush - sharpens
the terror, to such an extent that the reader may doubt the efficacy of poetic
redress.
'Mycenae Lookout' is one of several sinewy poems in The Spirit Level that
can stand with Heaney's best poetry. In his helpful reading, Daniel Tobin
recognises the sentry as a surrogate for the poet, always 'at the ready', but I

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cannot agree that 'the violent world of Ulster finds its objective correlative in
the often savage world of Greek myth'. 36 The tone of the Lookout, 'posted
and forgotten', is too cynical, the rhyme too smart-ass, the details too heavy-
metal, the abrupt lines too spiky:

Her soiled vest,


her little breasts,
her clipped, devast-
ated, scabbed
punk head,
the char-eyed
famine gawk -
she looked
camp-fucked
and simple.
('Cassandra')

As Vendler says, 'Heaney has never before permitted himself such brutal
strokes in delineating a victim', and, she continues, 'Agamemnon . . . is
equally violently sketched' (170). Indeed, Heaney's Agamemnon is so men-
acing he might have sprung from the head of Ted Hughes's Crow. After
the ceasefire of 1994 and the ungoing negotiations for peace, the reader
might have expected pacific poems such as 'Tolland', the penultimate poem
in this volume, in which the site of prehistoric violence has become 'the
bright "Townland of Peace" ' (Spirit Level, 80). The eruption of 'Mycenae
Lookout' into this ceasefire has the effect of reminding us that homicide
was not endemic to Ulster and 'That killing-fest, the life-warp and world-
wrong/ . . . still augured and endured' (34). For that reason, the attempt to
redress seems directed toward a realm larger than Northern Ireland.
The relation of poetry to practical life occupies Heaney in Electric Light
(2001). 37 Some reviewers found that the book had an insufficiency of joules,
although the title poem was universally admired. Because it indirectly but
significantly addresses the question of the location of poetry, 'Electric Light'
should be the best place to end this essay. In a Poetry Book Society Bulletin,
reprinted in The Guardian on Bloomsday of 2001, Heaney identified the old
woman as his grandmother: 'There are clues to show that she is ancient,
archetypal and central to the family'. Heaney says further, 'The brightness
of my grandmother's house is associated in my mind with a beautiful line
from the Mass of the Dead - "Et lux perpetua luceat eis", "And let perpetual
light shine upon them . . . . " ' He continues,' "The stilly night" is mentioned
and to anyone who knows the Thomas Moore song, the phrase inevitably

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calls up "the light/Of other days around me" \ 38 Electric Light, then, repre-
sented the new and wonderful and lit the boy's aspirations toward the outside
world:
If I stood on the bow-backed chair, I could reach
The light switch. They let me and they watched me.
A touch of the little pip would work the magic.
A turn of their wireless knob and light came on
In the dial. They let me and they watched me
As I roamed at will the stations of the world.

It also represents the glow of memory and imagination as it lights the past
and the dead, appropriate to setting the elegies that fill most of this volume.
Several reviewers were attracted to the description of the old woman's
thumbnail which opens the poem:

Candle-grease congealed, dark-streaked with wick-soot. . .


The smashed thumb-nail
Of that ancient mangled thumb was puckered pearl,
Rucked quartz, a littered Cumae.
In the first house where I saw electric light

The thumbnail also closes it:

Electric light shone over us, I feared


The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of her nail,
So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it must still keep
Among beads and vertebrae in the Derry ground.
Beyond connecting this woman to Cumae and, thereby, to the oldest of
the prophetesses who served Apollo, god of light and poetry, the nails of
this diviner of the future signify her pre-electrical past with candles and
lanterns. Moreover, they relate her to the corpses in North, those of relatives
whose 'nails/were darkened . . .' (15) and those of the bog-burials who had
'bruised berries u n d e r . . . [their] nails' (North, 33). Of the Grabaulle Man, he
writes,

but now he lies


perfected in my memory
down to the red horn
of his nails
hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity

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If, as argued earlier in this essay, the bog-corpses in their perfection and their
mysterious Otherness, human in origin but inhuman, as much excrescence
as the nails themselves, become analogues to works of art, then the old
woman represents the translated object of art, poetry itself in its elegiac
light.
Heaney's sibyl holds a curious kinship with another demigod called The
Nymph who appears in the 'Calypso' and 'Circe' episodes of Joyce's Ulysses.
Born as a Photo Bits gatefold, The Bath of the Nymph, framed by Bloom as a
'splendid masterpiece in art colours', serves to illustrate Bloom's explanation
to Molly of metempsychosis. More basically, she manifests Bloom's confu-
sion, not of beauty and atrocity, Heaney's distinction, but of art and pornog-
raphy, a distinction that elsewhere occupies Stephen Dedalus. Accused by her
of drafting her into his sexual fantasies, Bloom responds by evoking Keat-
sian aesthetics: 'Your classic curves, beautiful immortal, I was glad to look
on you, to praise you, a thing of beauty, almost to pray'.39 The wildly comic
encounter with its psychological subtext contains a startling confession by
the Nymph who associates herself with reproductions of Greek sculpture
in the National Museum: 'We immortals . . . are stonecold and pure. We
eat electric light' (Ulysses, 449). The ingested light provides the art's radi-
ance, what Stephen calls its claritas. The coldness arises from the necessary
detachment of the work of art, in Stephen's Thomist vocabulary its integri-
tas: 'The esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and
selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is
not it'.4° This frigidity, which Keats calls 'Cold Pastoral', Yeats assigns to all
great works of art.
We might deduce three explanations for the reappearance of the term
for art's diet in Heaney's title poem: Heaney deliberately recycled the term
from Joyce but left it to us to uncover the implications of this exchange; the
phrase 'Electric Light' resonates for Heaney beyond its autobiographical as-
sociations, but he does not recall its source in his quite familiar Ulysses; the
recurrence of the phrase Joyce used in Heaney's poetry is purely accidental
although the phrase reaves in quite similar aesthetic concerns. Whatever the
fuller sources for this phrase, it points to the gravity of Heaney's concerns
about the place of art, the possibility of and manner in which art impinges
on political realities, the uses of art in facing troubles, and poetry and vio-
lence. It may be the frequent expression of such concerns, rather than any
superiority of his poetry, that will distinguish Heaney from his brilliant Irish
contemporaries, a generation likely to be remembered with the Elizabethan,
Jacobean and Romantic British poets and the post-Depression American
poets as marvellous gatherings of talent. But that conclusion must wait for
another time.

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NOTES
1 The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 8.
2 Swedish Academy, 5 October 1995. www.nobel.se/literature/laureats/1995/Press.
html.
3 Neil Corcoran, Poets of Modern Ireland (Cardiff: University of Wales Press,
1999), p. 116.
4 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998),
p. 9.
5 Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 68.
6 Ciaran Carson, "Escaped from the Massacre?" The Honest Ulsterman, No. 50
(Winter 1975), 183-6. Coming from a fellow poet who has retained his residency
and raised his family in Belfast, Carson's criticism had a particular authority and
mordancy. Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1986).
7 Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet (University of Iowa
Press, 1993), p. 11.
8 Seamus Heaney, Death of A Naturalist (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 57.
9 Henry Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse University
Press, 1992-), p. 3i-
10 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 35.
11 Seamus Deane, "Unhappy and at Home: Interview with Seamus Heaney", The
Crane Bag, vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), pp. 61-7, 61.
12 'Talking Irish', The New York Times on the Web, April 8, 2001. Archiveds.
nytimes.com.
13 Conor Cruise O'Brien, review of North, Listener, 25 Sept 1975.
14 P.V. Glob, The Bog People (London: Faber and Faber, 1969).
15 Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, i^68-y8 (London: Faber and
Faber, 1980), p. 57.
16 Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 79-80.
17 Seamus Heaney, North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), P- 4°-
18 Carson,' "Escaped from the Massacre" ', p. 183.
19 Seamus Heaney, "Anglo-Irish Occasions", London Review of Books, 5 May
1988, p. 9.
20 Bernard O'Donoghue, Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (Brighton:
Harvester, 1994), p. 69.
21 Ian Gregson, The Male Image: Representations of Masculinity in Postwar Poetry
(Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), p. 130.
22 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. with intro by Frank Kermode (New
York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975), P- 4 1 -
23 David Lloyd, Anomalous States (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), P- 35-
24 Seamus Heaney, 'An Open Letter', A Field Day Pamphlet, 2 (Derry: Field Day,
1983), p. 9-
25 'Anglo-Irish Occasions', London Review of Books, 5 May 1988, p. 9.
26 Donald Davie, 'Donald Davie on Critics and Essayists', Poetry Review 85:3
(Autumn 1995), p. 38.
27 Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber,
1988), p. xviii.
28 Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 83.

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DILLON JOHNSTON

29 Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 6.
30 Conor Cruise O'Brien, 'An Unhealthy Intersection'. The New Review, 2:16
(i975), 3-8.
31 Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing, intro. by Ronald Schuchard (Atlanta:
Scholars Press, 1989), p. 36-7.
32 Rand Brandes, 'Seamus Heaney: An Interview', Salmagundi, No. 80 (Fall 1988),
p. 18.
33 Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 62.
34 Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 7.
35 Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 16.
36 Daniel Tobin, Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of
Seamus Heaney (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999), p. 287.
37 Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (London: Faber and Faber, 2001).
38 'Seamus Heaney on the Making of His Recent Collection, Electric Light' Poetry
Book Society Bulletin, reprinted in The Guardian, Saturday, 16 June 2001.
39 James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 445.
40 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, ed. Seamus Deane (London:
Penguin, 1992), p. 230.

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8
TERENCE BROWN

Mahon and Longley: place and


placelessness

Derek Mahon and Michael Longley have been publishing verse since the mid-
1960s. Both born in Belfast (Longley in 1939, Mahon in 1941), educated at
the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (or 'Inst', as it is known) and at
Trinity College, Dublin (where Longley read classics and Mahon French,
English and philosophy), they emerged as poets in a period marked both
by a remarkable growth in artistic and literary activity in a province long
regarded as inimical to the arts, and by the stirring of political energies in
Northern Ireland that inaugurated decades of violence and radical change.
Their careers as poets display similarities and differences as they have re-
sponded to lives lived in a period when the status of Northern Ireland within
the United Kingdom has been in constant question. Michael Longley has
lived in Belfast since the 1960s, spending summers in Co Mayo. In the same
period Mahon has lived in London, Dublin and New York with sojourns in
France and Italy, having spent only a brief period in Belfast after gradua-
tion. The historical and personal experience with which their work engages,
however, is certainly related (whatever their differing career trajectories) to
the political crisis of a period in which the relationship between Britain and
Ireland has been profoundly affected by the Northern Irish problem. How
they both relate imaginatively to the North, to Ireland and the rest of the
world in such a period, when violence was endemic, takes the critic to central
aspects of their work.
Derek Mahon's first collection of verse was titled Night-Crossing (1968).
The title (referring to the mail-boat crossing of the Irish sea, then, before
the era of cheap flights, often a challenging ordeal) surely signalled that his
was a migratory imagination for which journeys away from and occasion-
ally back to a native place would constitute a defining way of being in the
world. Where Seamus Heaney two years earlier, in such poems as 'Digging'
and 'Follower' in Death of Naturalist, announced himself as a poet linked
to an ancestral tradition in an immemorial rural world, Mahon presented
himself as a self-consciously urban, deracine intelligence, whose birthright

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was the bitter inheritance of an industrial Belfast, where the dubious bless-
ings of modernity challenged poetic ambition. In 1970, in an article called
'Poetry in Northern Ireland', Mahon acknowledged how social formation
as Protestant Northerners set such as Michael Longley, James Simmons and
himself apart from an Irish sense of presumed continuities of place and iden-
tity. He recognised that John Montague and Seamus Heaney, had distinctive
voices in Irish poetry since, as Northerners 'surrounded by the Greek gifts
of modern industry and what FerHnghetti called the hollering monsters of
the imagination of disaster', they share 'an ecology with . . . technological
society' and so 'insist upon a different court of appeal from that which sits
in the south'. Yet 'born within close range' of the Irish literary inheritance
'they can assimilate to the traditional aesthetics which are their birthright
some of (to risk pretentiousness) the cultural fragmentation of our time'.
By contrast Simmons and Longley (and by implication Mahon himself) as
'ironic heirs of a threadbare colonialism, have as their inheritance that very
fragmentation'. Possessed of 'dissociated sensibilities' they take as literary
inspiration a 'fragmentary assembly of Irish, British and American models,
not necessarily in that order'.1 Natural access to a presumably coherent Irish
tradition was not an option.

I
It is clear that if the young Mahon could not take an Irish patrimony for
granted, he was markedly unimpressed by the provincial British life offered as
a possible alternative by his native Belfast. He rather half-heartedly confessed
of its suburban banality, in the early poem he has chosen to stand at the
head of his Collected Poems (1999), 'Spring in Belfast', (originally titled 'In
Belfast', 1968), 'One part of my mind must learn to know its place'.2 It is as
if Belfast is entered in his world as the obverse of poetry, as a manifestation
of a version of modernity which induces deracination, as the place that set
him wandering to the many locations that over four decades have engaged
his restless, peregrine imagination.
Tellingly one of the most powerful poems in his first collection was a
journey poem 'Day Trip to Donegal'. This marked one of Mahon's earliest
renderings of the Irish landscape as a zone of being that in its elemental
contrast to the Belfast in which he grew up in the 1950s, serves as a reminder
of the risky depths of consciousness poetry must tap. The journey by car takes
the poet from Belfast to Donegal and back so that his dreams that night in the
city after a mere day in such a place are full of wind, rain and sea, intimations
of existential vertigo: 'At dawn I was alone far out at sea / Without skill or
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The plangent note struck in this poem is one that recurs throughout
Mahon's work, frequently sounding in those poems where he contemplates
Irish vistas of sea and seashore as tokens of metaphysical perspectives. In
such writing the Irish land and seascape, even if possessed of historical as-
sociations and political import (as in 'Rathlin' (1982) with its memories
of the sixteenth-century massacre of the MacDonnells and its 'metaphysical
wind') or of social significance (as in the long poem of 1972, 'Beyond Howth
Head') evoke an order of being akin to that imagined in those memorably
chiliastic poems in his oeuvre which invoke ultimate states of post-history,
post-existence ('The Last of the Fire Kings', 'Leaves', both 1975, An Image
from Beckett', 1972). It offers none of the consolations a poetry of place
customarily involves in Irish cultural tradition, with its suggestions of be-
longing, of familial and tribal continuities, nor does it allow indulgence of
romantic concepts of nature as a restorative spiritual agent in consciousness.
Rather, the alienated mind of these poems finds a set of expressive symbols
in images of storm, rain, wind, cold, waves and elemental emptiness. It es-
pecially relishes with a kind of stoical hauteur the idea of the liminal, what
is addressed in 'The Sea in Winter' (1979)3 as 'the heroism and cowardice /
of living on the edge of space'. For this poet the peripheral is a vantage
point which opens on empty desolation that cuts human pride down to size.
'North Wind: Portrush' (1982), in an entirely characteristic manner, invokes
the wind of a 'benighted' Irish coast:

It whistles off the stars


And the existential, stark
Face of the cosmic dark.
We crouch to roaring fires.

It is not that Mahon does not know that landscape can serve as more than
the symbolic expression of a vision of negation, of the rootless consciousness
in an empty universe. In 'Going Home'(i975) he acknowledges that pas-
toral possibilities and classical mythology can invest place with imaginary
charm. This poem contrasts a domesticated southern scene (presumably the
poem opens in the south of England) with a northern shoreline (presumably
Ireland; the poem may unconsciously echo Louis MacNeice's poem of a simi-
lar juxtaposition, 'Woods', 1946). In the one are 'mild woods' where, despite
the resident nymphs being poisoned by car exhaust, the poet can envisage an
Ovidian transformation whereby, as a tree, he might seem as if he 'belonged
here too'. But on the northern coast to which he is about to depart there
will be only a tree 'Battered by constant rain/And twisted by the sea-wind',
which truly belongs in the 'funereal/Cloud-continent of night'.

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In his essay 'MacNeice in England and Ireland' (1974) Mahon remarks


that only an 'English' poet could have written one of the stanzas of 'Woods'
where MacNeice observes

The patch
Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses
An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,
With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,
Pargetted outposts, windows bowed with thatch,
And cow pats - and inconsequent wild roses.4

A brace of poems by Mahon from 1979 s suggests that he himself, even less
of an 'English' poet than MacNeice, was not immune to the attractions of
the English rural scene in pastoral guise. 'Ford Manor' allows the flora and
fauna of the countryside near Gatwick airport south of London a fragile
moment of exquisite existence, when a pregnant mother is 'a smiling Muse
come back to life'. 'Penshurst Place' imagines a similar country house scene
as an Elizabethan moment, love proposed to a backdrop of lute music, in-
trigue and rumours of sea-battle. Read as companion poems these elegantly
composed verses (each two stanzas of eight lines of rhymed couplets) do
however set an imagined England in a broad, disenchanted historical con-
text, for all that they realise a rustic world in traditionally lyrical terms.
'Ford Manor' is aware of globalised modernity with its reference to flights
'from Tokyo, New York or Rome' while 'Penshurst Place' evokes the origins
of the modern world in its reference to early modern colonial buccaneering
('Spanish ships around Kinsale'). It is clear that for Mahon the attractions
of an English pastoral are no real alternative to the 'chaos and old night' of
reality imagined as a metaphysically awesome Irish vista. It is corrupted by a
historical legacy of imperialism and poisoned by modernity. In 'The Woods'
(1982), a two years' retreat in the grounds of a 'once great estate' read-
ily slips into allusions to the anciens regimes of Hapsburgs and Romanovs,
Lenin arriving at Petrograd. A post-imperial idyll is indulged for a time, until
it sates and the poet acknowledges 'chaos and confusion' as 'our birthright
and our proper portion'. If England once possessed a spirit of place able
in its intimations of continuity and settled tradition (more numinous than
anything encountered in provincial Belfast) to rival the vertiginous infinities
of Irish land and seascapes, then it does so no more. 'Brighton Beach' (1982)
recalls the journey which had inspired 'Day Trip to Donegal', but now the
poet who had been out of his depth in Donegal, strolls where 'the spirit of
place' cannot appear, for 'places as such are dead'. Where the poet had once
been 'alone far out at sea', the 'loved sea' now 'reflects banality'.

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If places are in fact dead in the modern world, the titles of Mahon's po-
ems reflect an obsession with what place might once have been when it was
possible to conceive of it as a stabilising point of reference. Many of the
titles are simple place names ('Rathlin', 'Old Roscoff, 'Mt Gabriel', 'Achill',
'Kinsale') while the figure in situ is recurrent poetic theme ('Brecht in Svend-
borg', 'Ovid in Tomis'). The prevailing mood of many of these poems is a
kind of austere nostalgia, emotion admitted as it is simultaneously ironised in
a regretful tone which can modulate from exacting self-mockery to elevated
sorrow in a way that is distinctively Mahonesque. 'The Chinese Restaurant
in Portrush' (1979), for example, has the poet himself as the figure in a
streetscape, contemplating an out-of-season Co Antrim seaside resort.
The first stanza indulges almost sweetly a nostalgia for a possible past:
'Today the place is as it might have been, / Gentle and almost hospitable'.
The early spring day composes itself as a lyrical instant after the rigours
of winter in a northern clime and before 'the first "invasion"' of tourists.
There is even an old wolfhound dozing in the sun to complete the scene as
imaginary Irish good place. Stanza two offers the poet as semi-absurd figure
with his 'paper and prawn chow mein / Under a framed photograph of Hong
Kong'. For a moment the proprietor of the restaurant sees the seascape before
him as a Chinese scene ('an ideogram on sea-cloud') and whistling, dreams
of home. It is 'as if the world were young'. Yet the reference to Hong Kong
in stanza two, comic counter of dislocation, where chow mein can seem
an unlikely item on a menu (the Northern Counties Hotel of stanza one
would in the past have offered more traditional fare), is disruptive of the
poem's composure. As disputed Crown colony (the poem dates from before
the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China) it
reminds us of Northern Ireland's ambiguous status in the United Kingdom
and makes the phrase 'the first "invasion"' of stanza one, far from innocent.
The good place is a momentary trick of light on the mountains of Donegal
(across a contentious border), the legacy of history is ineluctable, home the
stuff of dreams. Even such a celebratory poem of place as this is rich in
ironies.
In his poetry, Mahon recurrently invests the places he chooses as subjects in
England and Ireland and in the world at large with this poignant atmosphere
of certain loss. It is as if the alienation from a native place has made exile,
homelessness, loneliness, the defining conditions of modernity. Empires have
come and gone, a continent can bloom and disappear like a flower in a
sandstorm ('Another Sunday Morning'), history will repeat itself in the long
English aftermath of imperial power ('One of these nights'). The poet's is
the voice of a gravely pained belatedness, uncertain of any adequate human
future to supersede the failures of the past. Indeed he is drawn to sites where

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epochal events have taken place, making them the loci of a residual poetry
of their meaningful occasions. 'A Postcard from Berlin' (1982), for example,
evokes the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 'the fires / Of abstract rage'.
The sequence poem 'A Kensington Notebook' (1985) re-creates a London
district in terms of its early twentieth-century Modernist associations, but
recalls that the work of Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis
was conducted at the heart of an empire at war. The fourth poem of the
sequence is set in a diminished present 'Beneath the shadow of / A nuclear
power plant', in a world of dust. New York in 'The Hudson Letter' is a
'modern Rome', a smorgasbord of cultural reference points (Manhattan as
'off-shore boutique'), which induces millenarian speculations as in 'the thaw
water of an oil-drum / the hot genes of the future seeth'. It is a city of ghosts in
this long sequence poem of 1995: Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Hart Crane,
Frank O'Hara, John Butler Yeats and an emigrant Irish girl. It is a metropolis
no longer visited by great sea-going liners, the dinosaurs of a less 'exigent
world'.
Occasionally in this poetic inventory of places that have known signifi-
cance of one kind or another, Mahon includes his native Belfast and North-
ern Ireland. In such poems the Troubles are treated as a further experience
of belatedness by the poet, in a melancholy poetry of place caught up, trans-
formed and abandoned by history. Native places have been made placeless,
as is the modern fate. 'Afterlives' (1975) n a s t n e P o e t return to Belfast after
five years of war to 'a city so changed' that the 'places' he grew up in are
scarcely recognisable. 'Derry Morning' (1982) evokes a 'tranquil place,/ Its
desolation almost peace', where a revolution had once seemed to start and
the city itself figured on the Richter scale of international import. Now, in
a strange music of endings and departures, 'A Russian freighter bound for
home/ Mourns to the city in its gloom'.
Mahon's restless, migratory imagination, an intelligence alert to cultural
and social decline, a sensibility ironised by a perennial awareness of the
peripheral, accordingly finds expression in an oeuvre that makes of dissocia-
tion a signal poetic resource. Yet the poet remains haunted by the possibility
of belonging. However, exile and homelessness, (like that explored in 'The
Hudson Letter' in the volume of that name), the traveller's loneliness
recorded in many individual lyrics, find only momentary alleviation from a
sense of loss, estrangement, separation, as in the masterpiece of temporary so-
journ and 'disconsolate' solitude, 'Achill'(i985), which is lit by bright images
of the poet's children on holiday in Greece. The poet recurrentlyfindshimself
expressing love for a lover, for family members, affection for friends, across
empty distances, as if oceanic and cosmic spaces highlight the difficulty of
human communication and the fragility of such homes as we can construct.

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'The Globe in North Carolina' (1982), for example, has the poet turning
a globe in an American twilight, which induces spacious thoughts of con-
tinental geographies and New World futures. The poem shifts to a global
perspective. The planet itself is imagined for a moment as a 'home from
home' in space, before it address one who lies 'an ocean to the east' in a
different time-zone. The poet who began his career with a collection titled
Night-Crossing has become the poet of the trans-Atlantic flight ('Homecom-
ing', 'Imbolc' in 'The Hudson Letter'), the poet of repeated dislocation. 'The
Hudson Letter' acknowledges that 'even as we speak, somewhere a plane /
gains altitude in the moon's exilic glare'.
Given this peripatetic take on things it is not surprising that occasionally
Mahon does admit that he could make a home somewhere. Kinsale, in the
poem of that name, on a day of sun, with 'yachts tinkling and dancing in
the bay', in a Co Cork seaside town (the poet is attracted to the liminal
pleasures of harbour towns, seaside resorts, shorelines, ports) inspires the
poet to 'contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden by no-
one' (states of blessedness are often intimated in the verse by images of light
and sun). 'The Hudson Letter', in its penultimate poem, imagines heading
for Dublin as if for 'home', while the final poem of the sequence has as
epigraph Marina Warner's hopeful words 'Home lies in the unfolding of the
story in the future - not behind, waiting to be regained'. However, The Yellow
Book, 1997, which comprises the second of the long sequence poems Mahon
composed in the 1990s, suggests that Dublin disappointed, like everywhere
else. For the city is entered in that work as the site of post-modern decadence,
a dystopia for an ageing aesthete: 'The place a Georgian theme-park for the
tourist'.
Early in his career Mahon identified a French landscape as an exemplum
of a possible good place. For one of the most buoyant of his poems of place
was the early 'Four Walks in the Country Near Saint-Brieuc' (1968), which
opens with a lyrical morning evocation of la France profonde:
Suddenly, near at hand, the click of a wooden shoe
An old woman among the primaeval shapes
Abroad in afieldof light. . .
It was, however, in his regard for the poetry of the twentieth-century poet
Philippe Jaccottet that Mahon allowed his Francophilia its fullest expression.
He published a selection of Jaccottet translations in 1988. In the introduction
to this volume he wrote of Jaccottet's imaginative terrain in terms that suggest
that he is 'a secular mystic, an explorer of "le vrai lieu" ("the real place")'
who allows the possibility of presence in elemental, pre-Socratic symbols:
'tree, flower, sun, moon, road mountain, wind, water, bird, house, lamp'.

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He notes that Jaccottet's characteristic posture is that of 'a man alone in a


garden watching the sun rise . . . or seated at his desk at dusk', in a world
(so different from his own), where there 'is (almost) no sea: this is an inland
poetry of river and mountain, the country road, the lake in the woods'.6 Even
death, in such a primal setting can be imagined without a sense of absolute
loss. 'Words in the Air', has a spirit accept that others have taken the place
of the clear air that was once its home. So the poem concludes with 'tears of
happiness' as the living reflect on the departed inhabitant, 'who liked it here
so much': 'He has changed into what shade pleased him best'.
Mahon's version of Jaccottet renders his world as essentially calm, ahistor-
ical, touched mysteriously by the numinous in the natural order of things. In
the body of his own historically and culturally alert work the volume serves
as a signpost to those moments in his own poetry where a similar secular
mysticism finds intimations of presence amid the flux of time. The sequence
of Haiku-like miniatures published in 1977 as Light Music has something
of Jaccottet writ exquisitely small in it (though with Mahon's characteristic
geographic range), as in 'A stone at the roadside/watches snow fall/on the
silent gatelodge' ('Twilight'). It is, however, in two of Mahon's poems on
European paintings from 1982 that his own sense of the numinous finds
its fullest expression. In famous pictures by the Dutch Pieter de Hooch and
the Norwegian Edvard Munch Mahon finds himself before arrested, almost
sacral time. In 'Courtyards in Delft' and 'Girls on the Bridge' (there is a series
of Munch canvases on this theme), life seems permanently composed at a
significant moment in a particular place. Both poems imagine the people of
the pictures - the humble artisans of de Hooch's canvas, Munch's adolescent
girls on a bridge - as unconscious of the terrible histories of colonialism
and modernity that their worlds will give way to. They seem possessed of
the apparent permanence of art, yet the poems they inhabit render such
transcendence as illusory. The timeless place art can seem to conjure into
existence - a girl waiting 'For her man to come home for his tea' until 'the
paint disintegrates', girls on a bridge at twilight, their 'plangent conversa-
tional quack/Expressive of calm days/And peace of mind' - is not immune
from history in Mahon's imagining. No place, however invested with lu-
minous intensity or emotional depth ('late afternoon/ Lambency informing
the deal table'; 'girls content to gaze/At the unplumbed, reflective lake') is
bulwark against pain and loss which in Mahon's sense of things, is a given
of the European and global inheritance.
It is this, perhaps, that makes 'A Disused Shed In Co Wexford' (1975) his
quintessential poem (and one of his finest works). This too is a place poem
that imagines, in a world where anywhere might be anywhere else observed
by the traveller with a 'light meter and relaxed itinerary', places that retain

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the authenticity of the suffering they have known. Such surviving 'places
where a thought might grow' could be Peruvian mines, 'Indian compounds'
and 'a disused shed in Co Wexford' where since civil war days, mushrooms
have been expectantly awaiting release from the long dark they have endured.
A sombre fantasy, touched with atmospherics of science fiction ('stalked like
triffids' of stanzafive,derives from John Wyndham's sci-fi novel of botanical
threat The Day of the Triffids), the poem builds with assured gravity into a
modern threnody for universal victimage. It is dedicated to J.G. Farrell, and
the allusion in stanza two to 'the grounds of a burnt-out hotel' summons
to mind Troubles, that author's novel of 1920s violence in Ireland. Yet the
work expands its purview from the particular time and place to encompass
millennia: 'Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!' The sci-fi aspect of the
poem gives to it an eerie strangeness, as if the residually human, with its
places, lives and histories, is an anachonism which nevertheless makes its
claim on the present.

II
Michael Longley's first collection was titled No Continuing City (1968) as if
to alert his readers to expect a pilgrim soul (the title refers to the Pauline text
"We have no continuing city', Letter to the Hebrews 13,14). The title poem,
however, was a piece of Metaphysical bravura ('my picture in her eyes'7 in
line two is an obvious borrowing from Donne), more concerned with arrivals
than departures. A man says farewell to former loves as he salutes his bride
and wife-to-be. It was a poem that anticipated a settled married life in a
collection marked, in contrast, by recurrent imagery of sea, water, weather,
journeying, and by what the poet in 'A Personal Statement' (dedicated to
Seamus Heaney) termed 'excursions for my heart and lungs to face'. In this
poem these are journeys of the mind in the sensory world. Elsewhere in
the volume actual geographies are imagined (the Hebrides in two poems,
Inishmore, Essex) but they are treated as metaphors of possible states of
consciousness explored by a poet inventing himself in his art. For Longley's
early poems (influenced by the poetics of English Movement verse of the
late 1950s and 1960s) were highly-wrought, tautly versified, self-conscious
artifices, that set urbanity of manner and civilised panache, against wilder
territories of feeling. 'The Hebrides' is a key early poem, with its elegant verse
form, verbal punctiliousness, syntactical and rhythmic precision, deployed
to ponder a region of the mind for which a wild, rocky Atlantic world is
appropriate metaphor. There is in this extended meditation a sense of the
poem's formal structure about to topple over in the risky zone of feeling
it has entered. The poem concludes with a dizzying image: 'I fight all the

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way for balance - /In the mountain's shadow/ Losing foothold, covet the
privilege/ Of vertigo'.
One of Longley's early poems, 'In Memoriam', does allow the carefully
controlled mental space of his imaginative engagement with the world to be
invaded by powerful feeling. Indeed the impression of deeply buried emotion
finding eventual expression is a poetic effect Longley achieves in the best of
his work. Here the record of a father's First World War experience is allowed
an expansive, elegiac narration. The conceitful troping of the early poetic
manner is scrupulously minimised and put to the service of compassionate
recollection (with a muted allusion to Wilfred Owen to root the poem in a
specific tradition of war poetry)8:

Now I see in close-up, in my mind's eye,


The cracked and splintered dead for pity's sake
Each dismal evening predecease the sun. . . .

The local 'war' which began in Northern Ireland in 1969, early in Longley's
career as poet, entered his oeuvre in his second collection, An Exploded
View (1972). Three verse letters to fellow poets, James Simmons, Derek
Mahon and Seamus Heaney have as their occasion the outbreak of political
violence in their shared native province ('Blood on the curbstones, and my
mind/Dividing . . . ' ) , which has forced the poet to reflect on his own political
and literary alignments. 'To James Simmons' entertains the possibility that
in a violent time an insouciant bravado has its merits ('Play your guitar while
Derry burns'). 'To Derek Mahon', by contrast, is a guilty acknowledgement
that as 'Two poetic conservatives/In the city of guns and long knives', and
implicitly as Northern Protestants, they had engaged insufficiently with 'The
stereophonic nightmare/Of the Shankill and the Falls'. Yet as he recalls how
they had in the violent August of 1969 together become fully conscious of
the sectarian realities of their natal city, he also remembers a joint trip to the
Aran island of Inisheer with two companions, where they had understood
how foreign they both were to the Gaelic and Catholic traditions of the
islanders. The poem registers a Northern Protestant crisis of identity which
cannot easily be resolved. 'To Seamus Heaney' is a circumspect address to
a poet whose early work had been palpably rural in focus, assuming that
they both might turn from the grim life of Belfast at war to 'That small
subconscious cottage where/ The Irish poet slams his door/On slow-worm,
toad and adder'. Yet Longley cannot, he suggests to Heaney, slip into that
easy Irish role, for he knows rural life can be as violent as urban. He must
make do as best he can, 'Mind open like a half-door/To the speckled hill, the
plovers' shore'.

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This telling couplet does in fact allow the critic to read Longley's many
Nature poems (and he has been Ireland's foremost Nature poet in the
twentieth century), in which the flora and fauna of the Irish countryside
are reverently itemised and described with a naturalist's knowledge and pre-
cision, as careful acts of attentiveness to the natural order, amounting to
a spiritual resource in a time of cruelty and violence. This sets his Nature
poems apart from the long-held English observational tradition of natural
history and topographical verse with its roots in eighteenth-century science,
to which such poetry might initially seem to belong. Longley might have
joined Mahon in a poetry of dislocations, placeless places, but for him exact
naming of species becomes a complex way of Irish belonging, of remember-
ing, of situating himself in a difficult cultural terrain, while remaining true
to his sense of a complex inheritance.
Longley's natural world, principally apprehended in the Irish West, par-
ticularly in Co Mayo, is a thing of exquisite particulars - of wings, feathers,
petals, birds' eggs, nests, bones, wild flowers, pebbles, footprints and traces.
His imagination is drawn to its vulnerable fragility, as if the gross forces
of history were an affront to its miniature perfections. The poet in his land-
scapes, amid its flora and fauna, is an intentfigure,simultaneously gentle and
resolute in his fidelity to a material reality that merely includes the human
and the historical. Indeed Longley's sensibility is Lucretian in its scientific
rigour and instinctively ecological in its lack of anthropomorphic feeling.
Nature for Longley is a marvellous miracle, recorded lovingly but without
piety or easy sentiment. The characteristic tone of his Nature poetry is that
of delight and clear-eyed wonderment before the world's manifold detail.
This sense of Nature as an intricate order of being in which humankind
takes its place with badgers, otters, birds - especially larks, the almost iconic
lapwing - wild flowers, beasts, rivers, lakes, rocks, earth and sky, stars,
allows Longley to write of historical disasters as if they were unwarranted
assaults upon the nature of things. Indeed his contemplative respect for the
processes of the natural world gives to his poems on warfare and on violence
a tone of compassionate anger that is central to their emotional force.
For Longley the violence of the twentieth century has its representative
occasion in the slaughter of the Great War in which his English father served
as a soldier in the British Army. The killing fields of that war, especially as
they were rendered in the verses of the English war poets, have constituted
for this poet a kind of metaphor for all conflict, in which human life is
cruelly, even wantonly wasted (allusions to and treatment of Great War
themes recur almost obsessively in his work, as in the repeated deployed
phrase 'No Man's Land', also the title of a poem of 1985, or in such poems
as 'Master of Ceremonies', 'Second Sight', 'The War Graves'). Accordingly in

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those poems in which Longley confronted the violence of the Northern Irish
conflict most directly (in 'Wounds', 1972 and 'Wreathes', 1979) it was with a
consciousness that the conflict there was notable for its victims, not its heroes,
that poetry was in the pity not the glory of war. In 'Wounds', piteous events
(the murder of three soldiers seduced into danger, a bus-conductor murdered
in front of his family in his own home) draw from the poet memories of his
father's Great War experiences. Both father and new victims are buried by the
poet with 'military honours of a kind', which pay respects not to the martial
valour his father had admired in the Ulster Division at the Somme, but to
the victims' very ordinariness, caught up as they all were by a force they
could not comprehend. In this poem his father has a 'spinning compass', out
of control, as well as badges and medals. Three teenage soldiers die 'bellies
full of beer, their flies undone', a bus conductor collapses 'beside his carpet
slippers', shot by 'a shivering boy who wandered in'.
'Wreathes' offers funerary respects to the victims of three acts of violence:
a civil servant murdered in his home, a greengrocer in his shop and ten linen
workers massacred by a roadside. Once again terrible events are associated
with the victimhood and waste of the Great War (the allusion to burial rites
for his father links the poem to 'In Memoriam' and 'Wounds'):
Before I can bury my father once again
I must polish the spectacles, balance them
Upon his nose, fill his pockets with money
And into his dead mouth slip the set of teeth.
The holocaust of European Jewry has also been registered in Longley's
oeuvre as a terrible assault on the human and natural worlds. 'Buchenwald
Musuem' in The Ghost Orchid (1995), with an allusion to a wreath of
poppies barely visible beneath a covering of snow, links that horror to the
piteous victimage of the Great War. 'Ghetto' in Gorse Fires (1991) implicitly
associates the ethnic cleansing of the Nazi period with the sectarian atro-
ciousness of Irish history. For this poem of seven heartbreaking vignettes
from the Polish Jewish experience includes, as the poet imagines a meagre
ghetto diet, a feast of Irish potatoes, named precisely like propitiatory gifts.
It is as if the whole weight of Longley's work as Nature poet can allow him
to invest a mere list with great ethical import - the cruelty of humankind is
rebuked by the tenaciousness of nature 'resistant to eelworm,/Resignation,
common scab, terror, frost, potato-blight'. Elsewhere in his recent work,
Irish atrocity, the murders of an ice-cream man in his shop ('The Ice-cream
Man' in Gorse Fires) and of a group of fishermen in 'The Fishing Party'
(in The Ghost Orchid) are made to seem obscene by similar litanies of names
of flowers and fauna.

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Longley's early poetry was marked by locational uncertainty. Not exactly


rootless in the Mahonesque mode, it was, however, the poetry of undecided
mental states associated with diverse territories in the British Isles. As he
developed into a poet of the natural world his imaginative centre of gravity
became unshakeably Irish. Indeed the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co
Mayo became a settled point of reference, balancing the home territory of his
native Belfast as when in 'Remembering Carrigskeewaun' (in Gorse Fires)
'the animals come back to me . . . /From a page lit by the milky way'. The
distinctly cerebral quality of the early work (in which the word 'mind' re-
curs) gives way as the poet matures to poetry marked by bodily awareness.
The imaginative centre of gravity is Ireland, the site of consciousness the
self in physical, even physiological engagement with its world. Arms, calves,
shoulders, breasts, nipples, buttocks, hands, fingers, feet, skin, hair, eyes, eye-
lids, teeth, bones, skulls, intestines, lungs and bodily fluids make Longley's
world one in which feeling is embodied in the palpable, in the actual liv-
ing, physical person with a biology, a physiology, as well as a history. The
poem's formal qualities, often deploying well-stocked stanzas, big with elab-
orate syntax and imagery, with their steadily cumulative, intimately precise
rhythmic advance on their material, also make Longley a poet of somatic
awareness.
Yet for all the substantiality of Longley's sense of things, the poet is also
haunted by dissolutions, altered states, posthumous conditions. For a pro-
found emotional engagement with how things are also induces in this poet a
countervailing apprehension of their impermanence. A characteristic impulse
accordingly is to imagine a future in which 'the children/Are drawers full of
soft toys' ('Company', 1975) a n d a couple 'hesitate together/On the verge
of an almost total silence', or to ponder the poet's own disappearance in a
vanishing trick or in death itself. The idea of his own death-bed fascinates,
as in 'Three Posthumous Pieces', as does his own funeral in 'Detour' (1991),
that makes its circuitous progress through typical Longley territory, but ends
with an image of the futile postponement of finality. 'Oliver Plunkett' (1979)
is absorbed by the bizarre perceptual effects of decapitation, and ends with a
consciousness that both the Christian saint and his killers have been absorbed
by the void:

He has been buried under the fingernails


Of his executioner, until they too fade
Like the lightning flash of their instruments.
There accompanies him around the cathedral
Enough silence to register the noise
Of the hairs on his arms and legs expiring.

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'Obsequies' (1979) reflects most curiously on the poet's own body on a


dissecting table, eyes and other parts made available to medical science,
awaiting 'A final ocean, tears, water from the tap,/ Superstitious rivers to
take me there'. For Longley's is a sensibility that admits no conventional
religious consolation to its awareness of mutability and mortality. His mind,
it could be said, is classical rather than Christian, life being greeted with
a Horation sense of its brevity. Afterwards there is only the world of the
shades.
The superstitious waters invoked in the final line of 'Obsequies' are, of
course, the rivers Styx and Lethe, introduced with consummate assurance
from Longley's pervasive intimacy as poet with Graeco-Roman perspectives.
For throughout his career the classical authors have afforded him imaginative
sustenance in dark times almost to the degree that the Irish landscape and
its natural history have done, giving his work a European as well as Irish
amplitude.
In his early poetry, Longley's classicism had it must be said a bookish,
rather mannered quality. In No Continuing City, 'Circe', 'Nausicaa', and
'Narcissus' read like the self-conscious, conventional experiments of the
Classics student Longley had recently been at Trinity College, Dublin. It was
in his second collection An Exploded View (1973) that Longley's classicism
took on a markedly distinctive note related to his developing vision of the
palpable Irish world and of the body. A poem in that book which realises in
imagistic detail the folklore of Irish rural life is titled 'Lares'. It links immemo-
rial practice and religious belief in Ireland with the protective Roman deities
of farmland and household, the guardians of roads and wayfarers and of the
state itself. And 'An Image From Propertius' associates the Roman love poet
with Longley's intent concern for posthumous disintegration ('Ankle-bone,
knuckle/In the ship of death') while 'Altera Cithera' salutes the same Latin
poet as an 'old friend' who espoused an erotic, bodily aesthetic of the lyric
in a time when events seemed to call for 'all the dreary/epics of the muscle
bound'.
Peter McDonald has astutely identified 'Altera Cithera' as an intimation
of later poems that would prove to be 'among Longley's most powerful
performances'. These are poems in his volume Gorse Fires (1991) which
'are best characterised as transformations into lyric of narrative material'.
McDonald is referring here to a set of seven poems which 'condense Homeric
episodes, employing long lines and a syntax which maintains a degree of
complexity without falling into convolutedness'.9 The Ghost Orchid (1995)
collects seven further poems of this type. In these works Homeric incidents
from an epic narration are rendered as occasions best apprehended in terms
of lyric feeling. The effect is not to reduce the import of what is enacted

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in the poems (Odysseus' return to Ithaca, for example, his meeting with
his nurse, with his aged father, the destruction of the suitors), but to invest
the events recalled from the Homeric text with an accompanying sense of
pity. The poems become in their way further 'war poems' in the Longley
oeuvre, for the poetry is still in the pity. Great events are granted their epic
significance but the human participants are given the privilege of individual
emotion in intimately realised settings. And the intimacy of setting in these
poems is augmented by a subtle blend of formal and demotic language (a
shadowy cave is 'full of bullauns', Laertes is seen 'in his gardening duds'
wearing a 'goatskin duncher', the soul of the slaughtered suitors are led
'Along . . . clammy sheughs'). The landscape is Mediterranean, imagined
with the exactitude of Longley's botanical eye, modulating at moments into
an Irish topography (as it does in 'The Camp-Fires' in The Ghost Orchid,
when men at their fires waiting for dawn on a battlefield are compared, in
an epic simile within a skilfully controlled parentheses, to the stars above
a Mayo townland). The effect is to suggest that an ancient text can sustain
the poet's ethical commitment to the personal life, even when it involves
suffering and atrocity.
The Ghost Orchid, in which passages from both the Odyssey and from the
Iliad are employed as the basis of lyric verse, is also notable for a series of
poems which derive from the Latin poet Ovid. As poems that highlight 'the
fundamental interconnectedness of things' ('According to Pythagoras'), they
endow Longley's pervasive ecological awareness with an air of sacred mys-
tery. They also allow him to indulge a deepening interest in gender exchange
in poems of the body which allow human sexuality to appear as a botanical
process. 'A Flowering' begins 'Now that my body grows woman-like' and
concludes in imagery that makes of sexual intercourse a biological miracle:
Creating in an hour
My own son's beauty, the truthfulness of my nipples,
Petals that will not last long, that hang on and no more,
Youth and its flower named after the wind, anemone.
'Mr iof' is good-humouredly delighted that even the most well-endowed
male began life in the womb, 'As a wee girl, and I substitute for his two
plums/Plum blossom, for his cucumber a yellowy flower'.
Poems in this volume where the body is a site of Ovidian gender exchange
and the loves of plants, extend the range of Longley as love poet. For be-
ginning with 'No Continuing City', the title poem of his first volume, the
intimate strangeness of erotic experience has been a constant preoccupa-
tion of this poet. In a body of work that has admonished history with its
manifold victims in a poetry which precisely apprehends the physical and

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natural worlds and which makes epic occasion the stuff of lyric emotion,
Longley has repeatedly allowed sexual love to seem humankind's most pro-
found, even sacral, experience of 'interconnectedness' with a material uni-
verse. 'The Linen Industry' in The Echo Gate is a key poem, with its elab-
orate conceit of the process whereby flax is transformed into linen likened
to the transformative power of the erotic. The Weather in Japan (2000)
contains poems that take patchwork quilting, sewing, embroidery, as con-
trolling metaphors. They invest traditionally female activities with the power
of gender-exchanging sexuality itself and with the tenderness of erotic mu-
tuality which, in Longley's cosmos of feeling, is the ultimate force for good
in the face of death.

You love your body. So does Sydney. So do I.


Communion is blankets and eiderdown and sheets.
All I can think of is a quilt called Broken Dishes
And spreading it out on the floor beneath his knees.
('Broken Dishes')

NOTES
1 Derek Mahon, 'Poetry in Northern Ireland', 20th Century Studies (4, November,
1970), 90-2.
2 Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1999) and The Hudson
Letter (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1995) and The Yellow Book (Loughcrew: Gallery,
1997)-
3 In Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press, 1979).
4 Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, ed. E.R. Dodds. (London: Faber and Faber),
1966, 231.
5 Both in Poems 1962-1978.
6 Derek Mahon,'Introduction', Selected Poems: Philippe Jaccottet (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1988), 11-14.
7 All Longley quotations and references from Michael Longley, Poems 1963-1983
(Edinburgh: The Salamander Press; Dublin: Gallery, 1985); and Gorse Fires
(London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), The Ghost Orchid (London: Jonathan Cape,
1995) and The Weather in Japan (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000).
8 The First World War poet Wilfred Owen in his Preface to a projected volume of
'war' poetry had asserted: 'Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject
is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity'. The Poems of Wilfred Owen,
edited with a Memoir by Edmund Blunden (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965),
p. 40.
9 Peter McDonald, 'Lapsed Classics: Homer, Ovid and Michael Longley's Poetry' in
The Poetry of Michael Longley, eds. Alan J. Peacock and Kathleen Devine (Gerrards
Cross: Colin Smythe, 2000), p. 41.

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Between two languages: poetry in Irish,


English and Irish English

'Do you hear me whispering to you across the Golden Vale?


Do you hear me bawling to you across the hearthrug?'
(Paul Durcan, 'Ireland 1977')

Introduction: the position of Irish in contemporary Irish poetry


Irish literature has historically possessed what Thomas Kinsella calls a 'dual
tradition', and continues to be written in the country's majority and minor-
ity languages, English and Irish, respectively. As the two languages keep up
what Kinsella terms their 'dynamic interaction',1 many Irish readers have
increasingly turned at least one of their two ears to Irish language litera-
ture, in the original, in translation, and via critiques that take into account
both languages for a more comprehensive representation and understand-
ing of Ireland's art and eras. Therefore, whereas in some quarters a narrow,
monoglot view of Ireland's poetry still exists,2 recent critical studies of con-
temporary work recognise the need to account for the polyphony of voices
which make up what Sean O Riordain called the 'fuaim na habhann' / river-
sound3 of the living stream of Irish writing.
Regarding the notice that poets in Irish, English, or both languages, take
of each other, it must be said that Irish authors, like all others, freely tap into
whatever international sources they wish; reading, translating and respond-
ing to the forms, styles and subject matter of literature from both far and
near. But the 'near' in this equation does include the 'home' tradition, both
past and present, and there is evidence that a growing number of Irish writers
in either English or Irish are deeply engaging with work by their comrades in
Irish and / or their comrades in English. The evidence is in the large amount
of translation from Irish to English by most leading twentieth-century Irish
poets, and the smaller amount of translation from English to Irish. There
are dedications and conversations across the two languages, shared stages
and pages, and regular reviews and criticism (by writers in one language)

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of poetry (in the other language), revealing mutual awareness, appreciation,


and even disagreement.4
Twentieth-century poetry in Irish can be divided into three main peri-
ods. The first is the 1910S-1930S, the period of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916)
and, afterwards, poets such as Liam Gogan (1891-1979) and Piaras Beaslai
(1881-1965). The second period is the mid-century era of Mairtin O Direain
(1910-88), Sean O Riordain (1916-77), and Maire Mhac an tSaoi (b. 1922).
The third period is that of the Cork INNTI5 generation and after, charac-
terised by youthful vigour, modernity and internationalism. It includes po-
ets such as Michael Davitt (b. 1950), Liam O Muirthile (b. 1950), Gabriel
Rosenstock (b. 1949), Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (b. 1952), Cathal O Searcaigh
(b. 1956), Biddy Jenkinson (b. 1949), Louis de Paor (b. 1961) and Gearoid
Mac Lochlainn (b. 1967).6 The work of these poets will be discussed here
in relation to significant themes in modern Irish poetry (including language,
gender and sexuality). Following each generation of poets' handling of these
themes is one way to appreciate the shifts in sensibility that mark key stages in
the development of twentieth-century Irish poetry. Also, in order to highlight
some of the main ways in which the two main languages of Irish literature in-
teract, I will focus on bilingual writing, translation and influences across and
between languages, and literary traditions, from within Ireland and beyond.

Language as a theme in modern Irish language poetry


Patrick Pearse was the founding father of twentieth-century poetry in Irish
for one main reason: he was the first of his century to produce, in Irish, short
lyric poems of personal feeling. He wrote to the contemporary moment,
and did not tend to write about Irish itself as a subject in his literary work.
Instead, he demonstrated, through his own work, the creative potential of
the language. Yet, a decade later, Liam Gogan wrote this dispirited account
of his own engagement with Irish:
Dom fein is duit-se b'fhearra choidhch For me and you it would've been better
Go deo gan tigheacht id' ghoire If I had never gone near you.
Do bheifea fein id' bhlath gan teimheal You'd still be an untarnished bloom
Is ni bheinn mar taoim gan toradh. And I'd not be, as I am, rewardless.7
Gogan sometimes felt 'rewardless' but persevered, producing nine collections
of poetry between 1919 and 1966. Moreover, he must have taken some
pleasure from the wordplay and formal craftsmanship in the above poem. His
sense of being rewardless was due to a discouraging lack of public recognition
or appreciation - a condition that many modern poets could identify with,
but far exaggerated for the minority-language poet.

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In his prose work Feamainn Bhealtaine ('May seaweed', 111-13), Mairtin


O Direain invented the story of a poet called James Millane who wrote only
in the 'Ifish' language (known to him alone), and who would never (as James
Joyce did) have a book published with the words 'the Essential' before his
name in the title. Irish, however, was essential for O Direain, keeping him
in touch with his roots in the Aran islands. Still, his fidelity to 'the dialect of
the tribe' was balanced with his lesson from T.S. Eliot that the poet's job was
partly to 'purify' that dialect.8 His generation, therefore, not only retrieved
neglected gems (words and phrases) from the vernacular but 'made their
own of the language'. Also, if an idea or subject was first encountered, say, in
English, it had to be de-Anglicised, deconstructed and rebuilt word by word
(like stones in an Aran wall) in Irish. Then it could stand the test of linguistic
surveyors such as 'Sean-Mhichil' ('Old Michael'),9 a guiding spirit from O
Direain's Aran childhood, whose native ear for Irish assures qualities such
as authenticity and native-ness for his poetry. However, while traditional
and natural use of his language was important for this Irish language poet,
the point is that he was a genuine pluralist regarding languages and ideas:
'Ariamh nior dhiultaigh solas / 6 na ceithre hairde nuair thainig; / Ach
iarraim ar an solas iasachta / Gan mo sholas fein a mhuchadh.' (I never
knocked back light / from anywhere when it came / but I ask the foreign
light / not to put out my own.)10
Sean O Riordain wrote that 'it wasn't always the subject that moved me to
write poetry, but the language itself. Many poems [...] came from the stirring,
the excitement of the language itself'.11 Some critics felt that his linguistic
excitement and thoughts 'stolen' from English12 could produce a Hopkins-
esque that was neither Irish nor English. Occasionally, his language was
perhaps strained to an artificial-sounding level, but even the early Heaney
had difficulty in shaking off Hopkins' influence. Silenced briefly by his critics,
O Riordain made language a subject of his second collection, Brosna (1964);
and had the last satiric word in 'Udar' ('Expert' or 'Author'), a poem about
a character who takes so long to pursue 'perfect' Irish that he dies as he
acquires it.13
Michael Hartnett, in 'Teanga Mise' (1978, 'I am a Language') gave the
language its own voice as narrator: 'I am a language, the net that gath-
ers every fish'.14 Here Hartnett presents the language as a fisherman's net
that can surprise by landing any kind of fish, regardless of strictures and
expectations about the shape and size, etc., that an 'Irish' fish, or poem,
should be. Language, he adds, is 'more noble' than any one country, reli-
gion or patriotic ideal, all of which tend or try to harness language to their
cause. Such causes, religious and / or political, have taken a utilitarian view
of language (in Ireland and other countries) by turning it into a sacred or

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FRANK SEWELL

avenging (national) 'weapon'. For Hartnett, such a view of language is re-


ductive. However, he finds that, in the past, even Irish writers (including
James Clarence Mangan, W.B. Yeats and Padraic Pearse) have sometimes
been guilty of reducing language to a cypher, a symbol, in the service of a
cultural nationalist struggle. Consequently, language, as a narrator in Hart-
nett's poem, replies: 'I am not a hag, or ancient crone: / I am not Dark
Rosaleen, or A Poor Old Woman: / I am not a young woman with the walk
of a queen'. Here, the first line echoes Pearse's 'Old Woman of Beare' (a rep-
resentation of Ireland and, by extension, the Irish language); the second line
recalls James Clarence Mangan's 'Dark Rosaleen'; and the third line clearly
quotes from Yeats's Cathleen Ni Houlihan.
The three works to which Hartnett alludes are key texts in the pantheon
of Irish political writing; all of them are highly emotive and effective liter-
ary works but also, to an extent, propaganda. The contemporary critical
argument is that these works reduce woman to a one-dimensional image
for Ireland; here Hartnett levels a similar criticism, but this time against a
mis-representation of the Irish language itself as a national symbol. Notably,
Hartnett does not respond by romanticising the language, or making it 'some-
thing sacred'; on the contrary, he delights in the language's liberty and ca-
pacity to be both 'the soul's music' and 'the bad talk you hear in the pub'.
Irish, for Hartnett, is 'a ribald language / anti-Irish' and, for that very reason,
is both essential for the Irish, and essentially Irish. The poet utters neither
a po-faced paean nor puritan prayer for the Irish language. Instead, he re-
peats, first and last, a simple image that conveys the breadth, scope and
unpredictability of Irish: 'I am a language, the net that gathers every fish'.
With this one line, Hartnett deftly counterbalances the negativity that Joyce
cast with Stephen Dedalus' famous remark in A Portrait of the Artist, that
'when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to
hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I
shall try to fly by those nets'.15 Hartnett's poem shows that the net of lan-
guage (Irish as well as English) still hauls in unpredictable, necessary and
mouth-watering catches. Sometimes contemporary poets worry about the
minority status, and future, of the Irish language16 but they are writing out
their worries, and much more, in Irish language verse. Their original and
translated work is reaching, and teaching, a growing audience at home and
abroad - an audience that includes, and inspires, language-learners.

Gender in modern Irish language poetry


Eavan Boland has written of Irish literature as a male-dominated tradition
where, previously, women were presented as symbols and one-dimensional

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objects under the male gaze. The journey from being represented as 'fictive
queens and national sibyls', to becoming the authors of their own fates and
poems ('dain') is, therefore, often mirrored in the many 'journey' motifs in
women's writing: see Boland's 'The Journey' and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's
'Turas na Scrine' ('Journey to the Shrine'). Irish women poets, including
Medbh McGuckian, have looked to, and beyond, the Irish literary tradition
to find models and examples of first-rate women poets. They have often
tapped into the Russian and American traditions: to Anna Akhmatova,
Marina Tsvetaeva, Denise Levertov, Tess Gallagher and the feminist
Adrienne Rich. Why look to these international poets for aesthetic solidarity?
Ni Dhomhnaill, for one, has described Ireland's literature as 'sexist and mas-
culinist to the core'. She has labelled women's contribution to that tradition
as 'the hidden Ireland' - redeploying Daniel Corkery's cultural nationalist
book title in a feminist light. Looking to the tradition, even with the benefit of
her Celtic studies, Ni Dhomhnaill finds little evidence of female foremothers'
work, although there is occasional mention of their existence in legend and
history.17
Historically, it seems that women's poetry, especially laments, were not
deemed worthy of inclusion in the handwritten manuscripts. One rare ex-
ample of a work that was recorded, is the 'Lament for Art O'Leary' by
Eibhlin Ni Chonaill. This international classic could not have emerged from
a literary vacuum; therefore, there must have been an underclass of women
poets and keening women. Yet, even folk tradition could be a cold place
for a woman poet: she was viewed as taboo, or a curse, signalling either a
tongue-lashing or that poetry (a hereditary gift) would die out in the fam-
ily whose daughter inherited it. More recently, Sean O Riordain expressed
surprise at the concept of a woman poet, and saw verse-making as a male
activity, requiring masculine strength and fatherhood:
An e go n-iompaionn baineann fireann Is it that the feminine turns masculine
Nuair a iompaionn bean ina file? when a woman turns into a poet?
Nifileachfiliochtan bhean. A woman is not a poet, but poetry.18

O Riordain's word-play suggests he was half-joking, as the poem ends with


the bathetic remark that 'a man is not a poet either; he is nothing'. But he must
also have been half-serious in this poem, which is one of several that explore
notions of what is feminine and masculine; the division between them; and,
perhaps, O Riordain's own mid-century, male crises and confusions about
gender and masculinity.
Meanwhile Boland and others were striving to prove that they could be
poets, and no longer 'poetry', by producing work to surpass the males. A new
generation of feminist critics also emerged and cast doubt on the accepted,

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FRANK SEWELL

mainly male, version of the canon. Some past women poets did come to the
attention of Celtic scholars.19 Their absence from the manuscripts (the an-
thologies of their day) mirrors, in Ni Dhomhnaill's view, the relatively small
amount of space currently allowed for women writers, whose exclusion and
limited representation points to a fear and repression of the 'deep feminine'
in Irish minds and society.20 In response, Ni Dhomhnaill has reversed the
male gaze of earlier poetry and cast a bold eye on life and love, challenging
male tradition and authority. Her poems can be sexy, funny, tragic, exul-
tant, rebellious - neither the sky nor subconscious is the limit. She has also
ransacked history and mythology for female masks and voices, in poems
characterised by female agency; where the 'she' is in the driving seat; and
when 'she' talks, even the male warrior Cu Chulainn listens.21

From female warriors to male worriers


Gender, as a subject, has been diversely treated by male writers. Early
twentieth-century poetry by Yeats, Pearse (executed leader of the 1916 Easter
Rising) and others was dominated by the warrior image of Cu Chulainn and
the mitre of St Patrick and the Church. Certainly, the rifle and ecclesiastical
staff, rather than Dubh Ruis's gaming-stick,22 loomed large as images on the
national totem pole.
In the mid-century poetry of O Direain, manly fortitude and constancy
were often symbolised by phallic symbols of standing trees and stout oars;
but also 'masculine' stone as compared to 'feminine' wax. This sharp de-
lineation increasingly troubled the poet himself: he feared that his youthful
abandonment of risky, physical toil on Aran for desk and artistic work in the
city, was responsible for a 'softness' that he detected and detested in himself.
Softness, inconstancy and malleability were qualities which he distrusted (in
himself and other males) and associated with the feminine or female who,
in some poems, could be swayed or 'turned' by a false whisper.23 What O
Direain admired was the constancy and steadfastness of those who do not
deviate from their vision, faith, love or loyalty; consequently, his eulogies are
for dedicated artists (including J.M. Synge and Mairtin O Cadhain) and un-
compromising rebels such as 'Mna na hAiseiri' ('Women of the 1916 Easter
Rising').
O Riordain's imagination was saturated with the language and symbolism
of Catholicism, including the Fall that 'split the beautiful morning / into male
and female' (Eireaball Spideoige, 71). This division (as in O Direain's work)
was not always so clear cut. In 'An Bas' ('Death'), O Riordain recalled a
period of illness when, accepting the immanence of death, he 'understood /
the joy of a woman / expecting her partner, / although I am not female'.

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Not female, O Riordain's aesthetic, nevertheless, demanded that he fly from


self to self to occupy a horse's hooves, ('Malairt', 'Swapping Places'), a cat's
paws, ('EireabhV, 'Tailed' in Tar Eis Mo Bhdis) or somebody else's stilettos:

I look at a bottle and I am bottled. I think of a woman and I am womaned.


That is, the bottle and the woman lift me out of myself, take away the burden
of 'me-ness'. To think of them is to be bottled, womaned. A thought is a kind
of magic wand. This flight is necessary. You'd go insane if you were always
yourself. Life and self are multifarious. We have to be bottles, horses, prayers
or else we'd be mad. A lunatic is someone who has tripped and fallen into
himself and can't get o u t . . . or into a bottle and can't get out. That's the way
it is. 'No Loitering'. A person must keep travelling from self to self.24

Such 'travelling' points to a key transgressive element in O Riordain's aes-


thetic. For example, if it took masculine strength to wrest poems from mem-
ory and rock, to struggle like a Gandhi or St Barra with metaphysics (in
'Oilean agus Oilean Eile' / One Island and Another'), he elsewhere presented
versemaking as a feminine birthing process (in 'A Sheanfhili, Muinidh Dom
Glao' / 'Old Poets, Teach Me the Call').

Sexuality in modern Irish poetry


The early twentieth century in Ireland was the period of a national move-
ment towards independence. Members of resistance movements developed
a holier-than-thou attitude to their imperialist enemies. This attitude was
evident in writings by Pearse and other nationalists. The effect on Pearse's
poetry was a tendency to 'renounce' physical pleasures and worldly goods, in
favour of abstract concepts (the sovereign nation) and holy ideals (sacrifice).
Sexuality, in his poetry, is repressed because of his Victorian morality, and /
or because of his Irish Jansenist Catholicism, and / or because of possibly
the latent homosexuality of which he may, or may not, have been aware.
Male poets of the mid-century mostly avoided writing about sex. Yet, oc-
casionally, they surprised readers with a frankness about sexuality: see O
Direain's 'O Morna' and Mhac an tSaoi's 'Quatrains of Mary Hogan'.25 In
'O Morna', O Direain sympathises with a dissolute landlord who forces him-
self on some peasant girls and is welcomed by others, including 'Cat' of the
Glen. The poem has been called immoral but O Direain's stance was amoral,
honest and influenced by Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Mostly, how-
ever, O Direain was influenced by Eliot to 'rubbish' modern life and sex,
in the city: compare 'Ar Re Dhearoil' ('Our Wretched Era') with Part 3 of
The Waste Land. Both present a bleak and passionless portrait of twentieth-
century relationships. For O Direain, in 'Ar Re Dhearoil', women are either

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too free with their sexuality, or too repressed. Either way, the 'wretched era'
of Ireland's mid-century appears a 'sterile' and 'infertile' time in O Direain's
mid-career poems which themselves seem born of frustration. As a tradi-
tionalist, however, he apparently approved of healthy sex-lives in long-term,
marital, relationships; and he wasn't beyond using sexual metaphors. He
once lampooned his critics as 'eunuchs' envying the man with 'rocks'. 26
O Riordain (like O Direain) was disappointed in love, as suggested in the
poem in Eireaball Spideoige, 'Ni raibh si dilis' ('She was not faithful'). After-
wards, partly because of his TB and post-Catholic conscience, O Riordain
led a common mid-century Irish life of frustration. Repressed sexuality is
one source, perhaps, of the 'masculine' and 'feminine' imagery and vocabu-
lary of his poems. Certainly, in his last poems, as in 'Preachan' ('Crow'), he
regretted the bad timing that left him too old to enjoy the sexual revolution:

Ta mna na haoise seo Women these days


Nios feile fena gcuid are more generous with what they've got
Na bantracht oige an fhir: than the women of this man's youth:
Trua cas an fhireannaigh what a pity for the man
A chaill a chumas fir who lost his virility
Sara mbog an bhaineannach. before womanhood shifted/softened/loosened.

Another late poem, 'Do Striapach' ('For a Prostitute'), eulogises a prostitute


for openly plying her trade with the courage and honesty of a saint.
Maire Mhac an tSaoi's first poems caused a sensation partly for their
frankness about female desire and attraction: her poems feature a male
'big blonde' called 'Jack'; and the dark-haired, red-lipped 'Naoise, son of
Ushna'. 27 More openly sexual and defiant in content, is 'Ceathruinti Mhaire
Ni hOgain' ('Quatrains of Mary Hogan'):
Beagbheann ar amhras daoine, Indifferent to people's suspicions,
Beagbheann ar chros an sagart, Indifferent to ban of priest,
Ar gach ni ach bheith sinte Indifferent to everything except
Idir tu is an falla. Lying between you and the wall.28

Since INNTI, the 1970s generation, writing about sexuality is part of a


general modern Irish attitude of saying boo to taboos: Michael Davitt cele-
brates a pair of lovers' 'mysterious union' by focusing on menstruation; while
Liam O Muirthile sensitively celebrates the first 'tearing of the knot' of sexual
experience, which leaves streaks of blood 'setting in a seal of love over my
heart and over us'. 29 But most notorious for sexing the cherry of Irish litera-
ture, is Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill whose Selected Poems and Pharaoh's Daughter
contain poems about women engaged in illicit relationships; women 'looking
at a man' as a mouth-watering sex-object; teasing male authority; declaring

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war on 'all the men of Ireland'; and cutting 'Masculus Giganticus Hibernicus'
down to size. She has magically revised the canon of Irish literature by trans-
forming the male, this time, into an embodiment of an island or landscape
in 'Oilean' ('Island'). And, if earlier male poets were worried about female
constancy, Ni Dhomhnaill presents them, in Pharaoh's Daughter, with the
nightmare Mrs of 'An Bhean Mhidhilis' ('The Unfaithful Wife'). If 6 Direain
was concerned that individuals should be as rock-steady as a 'standing tree',
Ni Dhomhnaill's trees have lovely bunches of coconuts and yearly how's your
father, despite male/female tree-segregation.30 Sexuality, in Ni Dhomhnaill's
work, also has mythic, psychological and social dimensions: it offers (even
if fleetingly, as in 'Dun' / 'Stronghold') moments of balance and harmony, as
symbolised by the union of the Celtic earth goddess and sky god. Some Ni
Dhomhnaill poems are suffused with the afterglow of sexuality, including the
'silk-sheet' sensuousness of 'Leaba Shioda'; some are sensationally mouth-
watering in sound and sense; some are intensely moving in their evocation
of the pain of separation.
Cathal O Searcaigh's love poetry matches that of Ni Dhomhnaill in its stir-
ring evocation of past passion and tender longing. Whereas Pearse started
the twentieth century quelling his passions, O Searcaigh ends it, summoning
his passions and revelling in the physical joys and pleasures of life. Whereas
Pearse asked 'Cad Chuige Dibh Dom' Chiapadh?' ('Why do you torment
me / desires of my heart?'), O Searcaigh, eighty years later, invites the 'pas-
sions of [his] youth' to take him over, in 'A Mhianta M'Oige'.31 Whereas
Pearse's desires are an unleashed houndpack, greedily hunting him down,
and he wishes them held back, O Searcaigh calls for the houndpack of his
senses to be unleashed and unbound. Comparison of these two poems is in-
vited by similarities of diction, rhythm and imagery. However, the contrast
between the sensibilities of the two poets could not be more stark, and is
indicative of the journey of twentieth-century Irish poetry (and society) from
the repression of the 1910s to the gradual freedoms of the 1990s.
Even between the mid-century and its close, there was a remarkable shift
in attitudes towards sexuality and its expression in society and poems. O
Searcaigh, like Davitt, is a great admirer of O Direain ('the liberator of the
word'). Yet, when O Searcaigh recycles O Direain's image of the steadfast
tree, one finds that if the arms aren't openly embracing, the roots are playing
footsie under the surface.32 O Searcaigh's 'Crainn' ('Trees'), in Homecoming,
have more in common with Ni Dhomhnaill's 'Coco-de-Mer'33 and Paul
Muldoon's 'Wind and Tree' than with O Direain's lonelier trees in a colder
decade: 'Geag-uaigneach gach crann / Scartha leis an uile' (Branch-lonely is
every tree, / Separated from everything.)34 Ni Dhomhnaill's male and female
trees were at least allowed to tryst once per year; O Searcaigh would extend

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FRANK SEWELL

this license to same-sex trees and lovers 'any season of the year'.35 Recently,
O Searcaigh invoked the guiding spirits of the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy
and the Greek Irishman Oscar Wilde, to speak out openly and honestly about
'Greek' or gay love, which turns out (in Na Buachailli Bdna and Out in the
Open) to be the same as any other in longing, longevity, lust and loss. Sadly,
some readers have been as loud in their condemnation of the erotic poems,
as others have been silent regarding the sexual abuses which the poet high-
lights in 'Gort na gCnamh' ('The Field of Bones').36 6 Searcaigh is brave
in tackling topics which include gay love, sex and sexual abuse. There was
gay and erotic poetry earlier in the tradition but it has re-emerged with a
vengeance and confidence since the civil, women's, gay rights eras.

Bilingual writers
In the twentieth century, Pearse was Ireland's first major bilingual author,
producing work in Irish, English, and sometimes both. In diction and rhythm,
he was a faithful and effective translator of his own work, if one ignores the
outmoded use of 'thy' and 'ye' in his English versions. After Pearse, the
list of Irish bilingual poets is an impressive roll-call, including Brendan Be-
han, Pearse Hutchinson, Michael Hartnett, Eoghan O Tuairisc, and recently,
Micheal O Siadhail, Eithne Strong and Celia de Freine.
Introducing the anthology The Bright Wave, the writer and critic Alan
Titley remarks that 'the bilingual writer in Ireland runs the danger of being
treated with suspicion by both traditions without gaining the entire respect
of either'. In Eoghan O Tuairisc's case, the writer wasn't so much viewed
with suspicion as, often, not viewed at all by one language group or the
other. Confusion resulted partly because O Tuairisc wrote in Irish under
his Gaelic name, but in English, as Eugene Waiters. Therefore, it was not
always clear that the author of 'Aifreann na Marbh' was, simultaneously,
the author of The Weekend of Dermot and Grace (both published 1964).
However, O Tuairisc was a typical example of a plurilingual author, writing
in two languages just as freely as he read from several other languages and
literary traditions, including Chinese. He saw no reason to deprive himself
of linguistic and literary roots or routes. Moreover, in his view, Irish was just
as necessary for Irish writers in English as it was for their comrades-in-Irish:
'the Anglo-Irish writer without a mastery of Irish will always be a colo-
nial writer, member of a satellite culture, speaking and writing a provincial
dialect'.37 That statement may not sound very generous to his comrades-
in-English-only, but O Tuairisc as a man and writer was generous, giving of
himself, his talent and time by writing in two languages, and helping to make
Irish language literature accessible to readers without Irish: for example, he

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translated short stories by Mairtin O Cadhain in The Road to Bright City,


and edited a unique and revealing, early bilingual anthology, Rogha an Fhile I
The Poet's Choice. Like other bilingual authors, O Tuairisc, writing in Irish
and / or in English, was deeply engaged with his craft and whichever, at the
time, was his language of composition. It happens that the bulk and best of
O Tuairisc's work is in Irish.
The author most successful in both languages, however was Michael Hart-
nett. From Co Limerick, Hartnett was the author of twenty books of poetry
and many volumes of translated work. Writing in English, he came to fame
at an early age. One of his best poems is 'Death of an Irishwoman' which
concludes powerfully and movingly with two triads back to back - an ex-
ample of the use of traditional Irish (Gaelic or even Celtic) techniques in
English language poetry. Hartnett generally identified with the subaltern or
downtrodden. In the mid-1970s, when a coalition government was further
marginalising the Irish language in Ireland, he decided to bid publicly A
Farewell to English (1975), a n d t o write exclusively in Irish. Partly, he was
reacting against a new spirit of Anglicisation and materialism which was
evident in the Irish establishment. Yet, because he was a very accomplished
and successful writer in English, Hartnett's move to writing in Irish was dra-
matic and daring. His motives were complex, mainly aesthetic, linguistic and
cultural rather than simply the result of any narrow form of nationalism:

caithfidh me mo cheird I have to hone my craft


a ghearradh as coill ur: in a wood that's new:
mar ta mo gharran Bearla for my English grove
crann-nochta seasc. is naked, barren.38

Despite some raised eyebrows at the new 'convert', Hartnett's first work
in Irish was welcomed. The poets Liam O Muirthile and Seamus Heaney
felt that he was fusing Irish and Spanish influences (especially Lorca) in a
vital and revitalising fashion. Several critics even claimed that Hartnett's
poetry was more native or traditional than work by the Anglo-American
influenced INNTI group. This critique irked writers such as O Muirthile
who was impressed by Hartnett's work, especially the shorter lyric poems.39
Yet, among some readers, including Cathal O Searcaigh, the preference for
Hartnett's shorter lyrics is accompanied by a slight doubt regarding the much
longer poems, including 'An Phurgoid' ('Purgatory') and 'Culu Ide' ('The
Retreat of Ita Cagney'). For native speakers, Hartnett's acquired Irish does
not always read as naturally as his work in English to which he later returned:
'my English dam bursts and out stroll all my bastards. / Irish shakes its head'
(from Inchicore Haiku).

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Hartnett's return to writing in English was as natural as that water image


suggests, and the damming of English as artificial as that image suggests.
Most importantly, he remained a productive poet, writing in, and between,
two languages, and translating from past and present, home and abroad.
He left behind him a unique body of work with many aspects and layers.
For Hartnett was never one-dimensional: he was creative with a destructive
personality (an alcoholic); he was partly a 'stranger' and partly a Gael; he
saw poetry both as a gift and a curse. Shortly before he died, he said of poetry
that 'we met at the crossroads, and we got married'. To the end, he was still
at the crossroads, where languages and cultures, lives and times meet:

Chonaic me, mar scaileanna, I saw, in the form of shadows,


mo spailpini fanacha, my 'economic migrants',
is in ionad slean no ramhainn acu and instead of shovel or spade,
bhi ros ar ghualainn chaich. there was a rose on every shoulder.40

English language poets and Irish


Conversations between writers in Irish and in English (in the form of
listening-in, dialogue and translation) have become most common in the
twentieth century. The conversation has not always been conducted on an
equal basis: Ni Dhomhnaill once remarked that 'if Lady Gregory came round
to me I'd give her all the seanchas [folklore] she wanted, but in my heart of
hearts I'd be thinking [. . .] how come she's up there with her silk skirt,
and I in my bainin [peasant dress]; and how's she better than me?'.41 One
recalls also the image of Yeats in the 'peasant' cottages, collecting folklore
to fill and decorate his own voluminous pages; or the shadowy Synge noting
what he heard through chinks in floorboards or by the fire, to inspire his
own dramatisations.42 Were these spy-like authors cannibalising the 'native'
roots and branches of Irish culture? And / or re-potting them in Irish English?
Irish language promoters, including Pearse, first felt suspicious of (then-
called) 'Anglo-Irish' authors, and believed that truly Irish literature could
only be written in Irish. Increasingly impressed, however, by 'Anglo-' Irish
writing, Pearse, and most others, soon took the view that Ireland could
benefit culturally and internationally by having high-quality literature in two
languages. Meanwhile, Irish writers in English were convinced that a fusion
of 'Gaelic' literature (syntax, imagery, style, personae, etc.) with their English
language and international aesthetics, would prove uniquely inspiring and
liberating both culturally and politically. Some leant heavily on translations
from Irish to English by Douglas Hyde and other Celtic scholars. Others such
as Gregory and Synge learnt and translated from Irish. They also encouraged

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Irish language authors, prompting Hyde to write his play Casadh an tSugdin
(The Twisting of the Rope').
In the mid-twentieth century, there were some deaf and blindspots between
Irish writers in English and those in Irish: Eavan Boland was unaware of
Maire Mhac an tSaoi's encouraging example; and Sean O Riordain heard on
the radio (from two leading poets in English) that 'poetry in Ireland had been
quiescent in the 1950s' - the period when his generation was blossoming.43
Contrastingly, there were poets in the tradition of Yeats, including Austin
Clarke, who sought to apply the techniques of Irish language verse to their
English language poems, increasing their aesthetic range and options. This,
however, was sometimes viewed as a shallow attempt at authenticity, that
is, to sound more Irish (or what today would be seen as cringingly 'Oirish').
'Irishness' as a criteria for art was rejected by Patrick Kavanagh who per-
ceived cultural nationalism, by the mid-century, as 'anti-art', detrimental to
the imagination. Kavanagh doubted whether Irish language writers could
produce the real McCoy of art when, it seemed to him, they would get away
with anything as long as it was written in Irish. Unable to read Irish, what
he really distrusted was the critical and cultural climate of his day; he did,
however, evoke the spirit of an earlier local Gaelic poet in 'Art McCooey'.
Before Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice betrayed hostility to the Irish language
and the cultural movement to promote it in literature and society. In his
autobiography, for example, he wrongly assumed that Gaelic Leaguers were
'one-minded'44 when they were, at least, bilingual and (like Sean O Riordain)
subject to as many cultural divisions as MacNeice himself and most other
Irish people. Also, rather oddly for a reader of classical languages, MacNeice
dismissed still extant 'Gaelic' as a 'half-dead' language in Part XVI of his
occasionally ill-tempered masterpiece, Autumn Journal. Writers in Irish,
however, were neither suspicious nor hostile to the work of their comrades-
in-English. Actually, they were appreciative: O Riordain of Yeats for his hon-
esty, and of Joyce for his craft and daring; while O Direain eulogised Synge
in 'Homage to J.M. Synge'. The Irish language poets occasionally even learnt
strategies from Irish writers in English whom they celebrated in poems and
criticism.45
In 1999, John Montague returned some of the compliment and the spot-
light (mostly given to writers in English due to the prevalence of that
language at home and abroad) to his peer in Irish, Sean O Riordain.46
Montague has also produced translations from Irish; written of his personal
experience of the two-tongued, and sometimes tongue-tied, condition of the
Irish people; based poems on the tradition of dinnseanchas / place-lore and
placenames, and on personae from Irish language literature, including 'Mad
Sweeney'. He has even built poems on Gaelic Irish and Scottish models. For

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example, the poem 'Like Dolmens round my Childhood, the Old People'
consists of self-contained verses, and testifies to the continuance of 'ancient'
ways.47
Most Southern Irish, and Northern Catholic, poets encounter Irish lan-
guage and literature at school, meeting poetry in both languages around
the same time. One upshot is the large amount of translation from Irish
(among other languages) that Irish poets in English produce: key examples
are Thomas Kinsella's The Tain and Poems of the Dispossessed; and Seamus
Heaney's Sweeney Astray. These texts represent modern poets' engagement
with earlier Irish literature (which is mostly in Irish), and their attempt to
synthesise their strand of the Irish tradition (in English) with the pre-existing,
strand in Irish. Their interest is not simply antiquarian or nationalistic, but
stems from genuine aesthetic interest in the content and forms of (among
others) the 'home' tradition, which includes poems that give insights into
the Irish past and present, and pointers to images, concepts and techniques
for new work. However, one difference between the translations of Kinsella
and those of Heaney, is that Kinsella mostly limits himself to past classics,
while Heaney translates works by past masters but also by contemporaries,
including O Searcaigh and Ni Dhomhnaill.
It would be wrong to think that only poets from an Irish, national-
ist or Catholic background, have engaged with Irish language literature.
Twentieth-century Irish Protestant poets have found their own inroads into,
and mirror images in, the 'Gaelic' tradition. Yeats as a cultural national-
ist embraced the latter. MacNeice was suspicious but identified with, no-
tably, the voyager St Brendan in the poem 'Western Landscape'. And Derek
Mahon observed, circa 1971, that, previously, some poets, such as Michael
Longley and James Simmons, had deprived themselves of the 'benefits of
the "Irishness" at their disposal'.48 Mahon accounted for the refusal of such
poets to engage with their native Irish inheritance by explaining that they
had first to be true to their own 'dissociated sensibilities' and to their 'diffuse
and fortuitous' Anglo-American and Anglo-Irish interests and influences.
Mahon's own example, however, suggests that a dissociated sensibility like
his, is free also to engage deeply with the native Irishness at his disposal: see
'I am Raftery' and 'An Bonnan Bui' ('The Yellow Bittern').49 Significantly,
both Longley and Simmons later did engage with their Irish inheritance and
Irish-ness. Longley has become a close reader (in translation) of poetry in
Irish, translating a poem by Ni Dhomhnaill and reviewing poetry by O
Searcaigh. But the most dramatic turn-around has come from Simmons who
once mockingly entitled a poem 'From the Irish'. Instead of the expected
translation, the poem satirically delivers a bomb-shell 'from the Irish'. Later,
Simmons crossed over 'to the Irish', sighting his neo-bardic Poets' House in

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the Donegal Gaeltacht, with the help of O Searcaigh, and the enrolment of
international students writing in English and / or Irish.
In the post-Heaney generation, Irish has surfaced diversely in English lan-
guage poetry: Paul Durcan has mocked tokenistic and 'official' use of Irish
in the southern state in the sexual revolutionary poem 'Making Love outside
Aras an Uachtarain' (the President's residence); and there are also some deft,
macaronic turns of two languages in his farewell address from the bilingual
writer and translator 'Micheal Mac Liammoir'. Paul Muldoonfirstwrote po-
ems in Irish before switching to English, feeling he had a greater command of
the latter. Yet Irish remains an influence: his early poetry included dinnsean-
chas / placename poems such as 'Clonfeacle', playing on the sound and sense
of the name; his vowel rhymes, which surprise non-Irish commentators, are
influenced by the Irish language poetry which he studied at school; he is also
known as a technically and imaginatively gifted translator who plays, simul-
taneously, with both languages. For instance, the word 'Astrakhan' is some-
thing Muldoon added to his translation of Ni Dhomhnaill's 'cloca uaithne'
('green cloak') in 'Deora Duibhshleibhe' ('Dora Dooley'). The phrase The
Astrakhan Cloak then became the title of Ni Dhomhnaill and Muldoon's
1993 bilingual collection, partly because 'astrakhan' is a pun on the Irish
'aistriuchan' which means 'translation'. Muldoon also confessed that the
only worthwhile image 'worth a fuck' in his 1994 sequence, The Prince of
the Quotidian was borrowed from Ni Dhomhnaill (pp. 38-40).
Ciaran Carson was brought up in Belfast in an Irish-speaking house-
hold, and his narrative poems are influenced by his father and other tra-
ditional storytellers and techniques. In First Language, Carson included one
poem in Irish (untranslated); and he has kept up-to-date with Irish language
verse, translating the newest poets (Gearoid Mac Lochlainn), contemporaries
(Ni Dhomhnaill), and O Riordain's 'Malairt' ('Second Nature') which, he
writes, 'I have been trying to translate for about half of my life'.50 Medbh
McGuckian has written about language shifts and loss in 'The Dream-
Language of Fergus': 'conversation is as necessary / among these famil-
iar campus trees / as the apartness of torches'.51 She herself has recently
'conversed' along with Eilean Ni Chuilleanain (an Irish speaker who writes
in English), by co-translating Ni Dhomhnaill's poetry in The Water Horse.

Irish language poets and English


In 'Solas', quoted above, O Direain had stated the position of all twentieth-
century Irish language poets: 'I never knocked back light / from anywhere
when it came / but I ask the foreign light / not to drown out my own'. This
'light' has come in the form of international poetry, criticism and philosophy,

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and favourite writers from wherever, whenever. Their 'light' or inspiration


has been trans-lated (borne across), not to 'drown' or dilute the Irish language
tradition but to shake and stir its own inner lights and those of its writers.
Meanwhile, relationships between Irish language poets and English, have
been varied: O Direain was a native Irish speaker, less comfortable in
English - though he carefully translated one of his poems for O Tuairisc's
anthology The Poet's Choice. O Riordain, however, first wrote poems in
English, but quickly realised that his work in Irish was better, and that he
was more involved with the Irish language. An insufficient number of poems
by these authors have been translated (by various poets) in bilingual an-
thologies, and also to accompany some criticism. Their peer, Maire Mhac
an tSaoi translated some of her own poems for anthologies, and also edited
and translated one bilingual anthology (Trasldddill 'Ferrying across'). Her
English versions, however, sound rather folksy, and misrepresent the origi-
nals, which can be difficult to translate.
Many poets of the INNTI generation have published translations of their
work in anthologies and in popular bilingual 'selected poems'. The trans-
lations are often by the best of their contemporaries in English - some of
whom (including Heaney and Muldoon) know Irish well. Poets and transla-
tors often collaborate on the translations, and some of those in the bilingual
anthology The Bright Wave / An Tonn Gheal have become as famous as the
originals. (This anthology, together with The Flowering Tree I An Crann faoi
Bhldth, provides a useful introduction to modern poetry in Irish.)
Arguably, one reason for the concentration of critical interest in poetry
by Ni Dhomhnaill and O Searcaigh is the success and wide-availability of
their bilingual editions. Their work is remarkable in itself, of course; it is
impressive in quality, originality, imagination, language and range. Yet, it
sometimes seems unfair that these two poets are often spotlighted without
reference to others, especially those (including Biddy Jenkinson and Louis
de Paor) who don't allow their work to be published in English language
translation in Ireland. In future, more room should be allowed for critics to
highlight the full range of authors writing in Irish.
Ni Dhomhnaill's early Selected Poems features translations by the bilingual
author Michael Hartnett but also carefully-worded versions by Ni Dhomh-
naill herself. They resemble the 'cribs' which she provides for poet-translators
with little Irish. These cribs, as she calls them, are underrated by the poet
herself, but often provide the groundwork for English versions that could
stand as poems in that target language. Publication of the original poems
with facing translations by Heaney, Muldoon, et al., in Pharaoh's Daughter
have run into many editions, and even more languages. Muldoon stood out

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as such a fine interpreter of Ni Dhomhnaill's Irish that he was a welcome


choice as translator for The Astrakhan Cloak. The decision to have one
translator, her leading peer in English, engage with Ni Dhomhnaill's work at
length, was inspired and productive. Bilingual readers of this bilingual book
were doubly entertained, if sometimes puzzled, by Muldoon's own character-
istic formalism and some other informed (and approved by Ni Dhomhnaill)
deviations from the originals. Ni Dhomhnaill, meanwhile, had already been
reading Muldoon's own work, and there are some signs of his influence in
this volume (including the journey / Tmmram' sequence). All in all, it makes
for a unique and multifaceted collaboration. Most recently, Ni Dhomhnaill
chose two female writers in English (Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuil-
leanain) to represent her in that language. This creative experiment yielded
fantastic (feminist) results in The Water Horse (1999).
Cathal O Searcaigh's bilingual collection An Bealach *na Bhaile I Home-
coming includes translations by a range of poets and translators, from
Heaney to lesser known writers. This text, with facing translations, is im-
mensely popular with poetry-lovers and also with students of the language,
who compare or rely upon the two versions together. O Searcaigh's second
bilingual volume uses the present author as translator. The project attempts
to heed Alan Titley's warning that 'the rustle of sheets in one language' could
become 'the scratching of the bedpost' in another.52 This warning was impor-
tant because O Searcaigh was unleashing his 'coming out' and most erotic
poems to date, which required that the translations should attempt to be as
'fresh' as the originals.
Much thought has recently been given to the subject of translation, in an
Irish context, by Gearoid Mac Lochlainn in Sruth Teangacha I Stream of
Tongues. The 'author's notes' in this collection express the worry (shared
by Louis de Paor and Biddy Jenkinson) that English language translations
'often gain an autonomy of their own and eclipse the Irish', the original
poem. Jenkinson and de Paor respond by not allowing their work to be
translated in Ireland because Irish people should either take the effort to
read the original, or leave it. Mac Lochlainn, however, essentially an Irish
language poet and musician, has increasingly played on the two languages
to produce macaronic sound and sense effects. He has also played around
with the questions and contexts surrounding translation:

Amanna, eirionn tu tuirseach Sometimes you get tired talking


de chluasa falsa Eireannacha. to lazy Irish ears. Tired
Feinsasamh an monoglot a deir leat - of self-satisfied monoglots who say
'It sounds lovely. I wish I had the Irish. - (It sounds lovely. I wish I had the Irish.
Don't you do translations?' Don't you do translations?'53

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Reading this, and other twentieth-century poetry from Ireland, I am con-


vinced that 'monoglots' are missing out by restricting themselves to (what
Ni Dhomhnaill has called) linguistic and cultural apartheid. 'Culture', James
Stephens wrote, 'is a conversation between equals'.54 The Irish and English
languages may not be equal in terms of power relationships and numbers of
speakers, but the conversations (including silences) between these languages,
make up a huge portion of what we can uniquely call Irish literary culture.

NOTES

1 Thomas Kinsella, The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland
(Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995); and (ed.), Preface, The New Oxford Book
of Irish Verse (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. xxvii.
2 See, for instance, Dillon Johnston, in Irish Poetry After Joyce, 2nd edn. (Syracuse
University Press 1997), p. xix: ' "Irish Poetry" means what most of the English-
reading world recognises: "poetry written in English, from or pertaining mostly
to Ireland" '. But see also his 'Afterword', pp. 286-98.
3 Sean O Riordain, 'Eist le Fuaim na hAbhann' ('Listen to the River-sound'),
Eireaball Spideoige (Dublin: Sairseal and Dill, 1952, 1986), p. 47.
4 Gabriel Rosenstock has translated a selection of Seamus Heaney's poetry into
Irish; while two-way translation has occurred between Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
and Michael Longley. See Rosenstock, Conldn: ddnta le Seamus Heaney (Dublin:
Coisceim, 1989); and Ni Dhomhnaill, Pharaoh's Daughter (Loughcrew: Gallery,
1990) and Cead Aighnis (An Daingean: An Sagart, 1998). See also mutual re-
viewing by Ni Dhomhnaill, 'The Irish for English' (a review of Ciaran Carson's
The Irish for No), in The Irish Review, 4 (1988), pp. 116-18 and Michael Long-
ley, 'A Going Back to Sources' (a review of Cathal O Searcaigh's Homecoming),
in Poetry Ireland Review 39 (Autumn, 1993), PP- 92.-6. Disagreement can be
found in Seamus Heaney, 'Forked Tongues, Ceilis and Incubators', Fortnight, 197
(Sept. 1983), pp. 113-16. See also the journal Irish Pages, edited by Chris Agee
and O Searcaigh, English and Irish poets respectively.
5 INNTI was founded as a poetry broadsheet by students at Cork University in
March 1970, and relaunched as a journal by Michael Davitt, a founding editor,
in 1980.
6 Introductions to these poets can be found in Robert Welch (ed.), The Oxford
Companion to Irish Literature (Oxford University Press, 1996), and Gregoir O
Duill (ed.), Fearann Pinn: Filiocht 1900 to 1999 (Dublin: Coisceim, 2000).
7 Liam Gogan, 'An Ghaeidhilge' ('To Irish', trans, by Bernard O'Donoghue). See
Duffy, N. and T. Dorgan (eds.), Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish
Poetry (Dublin: Poetry Ireland, 1999), p. 58.
8 This and subsequent Mairtin O Direain quotes are from his essay 'Mise agus
an Fhiliocht' ('Poetry and I'), in O Direain, Ddnta: 1939-1979 (Dublin: An
Clochomhar, 1980), pp. 216-17.
9 O Direain, Beasa an Tuir (Dublin: An Clochomhar, 1984), p. 15.
10 O Direain, 'Solas' ('Light'), in Craohhog Dan (Dublin: An Clochomhar, 1986),
p. 23. My translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are by F. Sewell.

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1 1 O Riordain, quoted in S. O Coileain, Sean 6 Riorddin: Beatha agus Saothar


(Dublin: An Clochomhar, 1982, repr. 1985), p. 209.
12 O Riordain, Brosna (Dublin: Sairseal and Dill, 1964, 1987), p. 10.
13 O Riordain, Tar Eis Mo Bhdis (Dublin: Sairseal and Dill, 1978, 1986), p. 20.
14 Michael Hartnett, Adharca Broic (Dublin: Gallery, 1978), p. 14.
15 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in H. Levin (ed.), The
Essential James Joyce (London: Jonathan Cape, 1950), p. 327.
16 Cathal O Searcaigh, 'Caoineadh' ('Lament'), An Bealach 'na Bhaile I Home-
coming (Indreabhan: C16 Iar-Chonnachta, 1993), p. 208; Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill,
'Ceist na Teangan' (The Language Issue'), Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 154.
17 Ni Dhomhnaill, 'The Hidden Ireland: Women's Inheritance', in Irish Poetry
since Kavanagh, ed. by Theo Dorgan (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996),
pp. 106-15.
18 6 Riordain, 'Banfhile' ('Woman Poet'), Tar Eis Mo Bhdis, p. 45.
19 See Biddy Jenkinson, 'A View from the Whale's Back', in Poetry Ireland Review,
52 (Spring, 1993), PP- 61-9.
20 See Ni Dhomhnaill, 'The Hidden Ireland: Womens' Inheritance'; and 'Mis and
Dubh Ruis: A Parable of Psychic Transformation', in R. Welch (ed.), Irish Writers
and Religion (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1992), pp. 194-201.
21 See Ni Dhomhnaill, 'Mise ag Tiomaint' ('In Charge', literally -'I'm doing the driv-
ing'), Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 102; and 'Agallamh na M6r-Riona le Cu Chulainn'
('The Great Queen Speaks. Cu Chulainn listens.'), Selected Poems I Rogha Ddnta
(Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1988; repr. 1991), p. 116.
22 A folkloric reference to the penis as a symbol of sexual union, mutual plea-
sure and harmony between the sexes. See Ni Dhomhnaill, 'Mis and Dubh Ruis',
P- I ? 5 -
23 See O Direain, 'Cloch is Ceir' ('Stone and Wax'), 'Teagmhail' ('Contact'); 'Boige'
('Softness'), 'Caoin Tu Fein a Bhean' ('Cry for yourself, woman'), in Ddnta,
pp. 116, 141, 143 and 54.
24 O Riordain, quoted in S. O Coileain, Sean O Riorddin: Beatha agus Saothar,
pp. 155-6.
25 O Direain, Ddnta, 36; and Kiberd and Fitzmaurice (eds.), The Flowering Tree,
p. 80.
26 O Direain, Ddnta, p. 102.
27 Maire Mhac an tSaoi, An Cion go dtiSeo (Dublin: Sairseal - O Marcaigh, 1987,
repr. 1988), pp. 22 and 32.
28 See Kiberd and Fitzmaurice (eds.), The Flowering Tree, p. 80.
29 D. Bolger (ed.), The Bright Wave I An Tonn Gheal (Dublin: Raven Arts Press,
1991), pp. 28 and 166.
30 Ni Dhomhnaill, The Astrakhan Cloak (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1993), p. 90.
31 Compare Padraic Pearse, Selected Poems I Rogha Ddnta, ed. by Dermot Bolger
(Dublin: New Island Books, 1993), p. 52, with Cathal O Searcaigh, Out in the
Open (Indreabhan: C16 Iar-Chonnachta, 1997), p. 132.
32 O Searcaigh, An Bealach 'na Bhaile I Homecoming, pp. 186 and 160.
33 Ni Dhomhnaill, The Astrakhan Cloak, p. 90.
34 O Direain, Ddnta, p. j ^ .
35 O Searcaigh, An Bealach 'na Bhaile I Homecoming, p. 82.

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36 See Dughlas Sealy, untitled review of An Bealach 'na Bhaile I Homecomings in


Comhar (July 1993), pp. 21-2; and Noel Duffy and T. Dorgan (eds.), Watching
the River Flow, p. 223. Also, O Searcaigh, Out in the Open, p. 66.
37 Comments from an RTE radio interview; broadcast July 6, 1980.
38 'Dan do Rosemary' ('Poem for Rosemary'), trans, by Gabriel Fitzmaurice, in
The Flowering Tree, p. 183.
39 See G. Denvir (ed.), Duanaire an Cheid (Indreabhan: C16 Iar-Chonnachta, 2000),
pp. 76 and JJ.
40 M. Hartnett, 'Fis Dheireanach Eoghain Rua Ui Shuilleabhain' ('Last Vision of
Owen Roe O'Sullivan'), in G. Denvir (ed.), Duanaire an Cheid, p. 77.
41 See 'Question and Answer: Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill', an interview by
L. McDiarmid and M. Durkan, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1987), p. 42.
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) was a dramatist, folklorist, translator and
founder (with Yeats and others) of the Irish National Theatre, later to become
The Abbey Theatre.
42 See John Millington Synge (1871-1909), The Aran Islands, in which he describes
listening in to Irish language and oral tales. These later resurfaced in the content
and language (Irish or Hiberno-English) of his creative work.
43 See Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, 'Why I Choose to Write in Irish', The New York Times
Book Review, January 8, 1995, p. 27.
44 'There was a huge crowd of Gaelic Leaguers, all wearing their fdine, one-minded
partisans'. Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False (London: Faber and Faber,
1965), p. 212.
45 For O Riordain's negotiation of Corkery's and Joyce's diverse influences, see Frank
Sewell, 'Sean O Riordain: Joycery-Corkery-Sorcery', in The Irish Review, No. 23
(Winter 1998), pp. 42-61.
46 John Montague, 'The Two Seans', Smashing the Piano (Loughcrew: Gallery Press,
1999), P- 58.
47 John Montague, New Selected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1989), p. 12.
48 Mahon, 'Poetry in Northern Ireland', Twentieth Century Studies, 4 (November
1970), p. 92.
49 Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 50; and The
Yellow Book (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1997), p. 26.
50 See N. Duffy and T. Dorgan (eds.), Watching the River Flow, p. 86.
51 M. McGuckian, Selected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1997), pp. 48-9.
52 See the Preface of Cathal O Searcaigh's Out in the Open.
53 G. Mac Lochlainn, 'Aistriuchain' ('Translations'), Sruth Teangacha, p. 62.
54 J. Stephens, 'The Outlook for Literature with Special Reference to Ireland' (1922),
in M. Storey (ed.), Poetry and Ireland Since 1800: A Source Book (London:
Routledge, 1988), p. 179.

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GUINN BATTEN

Boland, McGuckian, Ni Chuilleanain


and the body of the nation

He lies in his English envelope


like the Greek word for Greekness,
defender of Throne and Altar,
while the frontier is guarded
by the small wombs of two chickens.
(Medbh McGuckian 'Life as a
Literary Convict', Soldiers of
Year Two, 2002 )x

The modern Irish poet is not a man in the foreground, silhouetted against
a place.... like a Gaelic bard the creature can be male or female, nomadic
without losing a tribal identity.
(Eilean Ni Chuilleanain)2

In an Irish context it may not be possible to imagine poetry in relation to


the 'body' of the 'nation' without evoking the still-existent border to which
Medbh McGuckian starkly alludes, a political and historical fact that di-
vides 'Ireland' into two states and at least two bodies politic. Neither is it
possible, despite the growing popularity of these three women poets, to imag-
ine the term 'Irish poet' without picturing the foregrounded and masculine
body emerging from the landscape which Eilean Ni Chuilleanain challenges.
Bringing together both implications, the phrase 'body of the nation' implic-
itly recalls the nationalist literary text to which Eavan Boland, probably
Ireland's most influential feminist, alludes in her essay 'Subject Matters',
The Spirit of the Nation. Concerning these 'sixpenny booklet' antholo-
gies of nationalist ballads compiled by The Nation newspaper from 1843,
Boland writes: 'in its pages the public poem and the political poem were
confused at the very moment when the national tradition was making a
claim on Irish poetry which would colour its themes and purposes for a cen-
tury'. As she has clearly and forcefully insisted in that essay and elsewhere,
Ireland's particular literary history, with its closely related politics and poetics

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of embodiment, has led to a 'mixing of the national and the feminine'3 that
has disempowered the woman writer. Boland's argument may, at the risk of
overstatement, be briefly summarised and slightly enlarged as follows. Irish
cultural nationalism, in defining claims for poetic authority as the reclama-
tion of the motherland, has defined the poet as it has the hero: as a specially
endowed (male) subject who can repossess the maternal body - the aisling,
Sovereignty, Kathleen ni Houlihan - who has been overcome by a foreign
father. Such repossession, a restoration of family property, allegedly offers to
the (male) poet not only a lost land but also, more importantly, a previously
thwarted vision of 'Ireland' in its totality.
In the chapter that follows, I depart from the excellent work of two
scholars of both Boland and McGuckian, Clair Wills and Catriona Clutter-
buck. Beginning with quite different bases for understanding nationality
and gender in relation to Irish women's poetry, Wills and Clutterbuck not
surprisingly reach different conclusions concerning, broadly speaking, the
consequences and, indeed, the efficacy of representative politics and poetic
representation.4 My own reading of Boland and McGuckian has acquired
a different focus largely through the presence of a third poet, Eilean Ni
Chuilleanain. A comparative reading of these three poets through the inter-
related terms 'body' and 'nation' requires us to look beyond the limits as
well as the possibilites of, in its various senses, representation.

Political representation and the representative poet


Interestingly, Boland's prescription in 'Subject Matters' for a political
woman's poetry that refuses the representative role of the poet as (to adapt
Yeats's title) a 'spirit medium' for nationalism coincides with David Lloyd's
critique of The Spirit of the Nation in his Nationalism and Minor Literature
(1987). Both have argued that the Romantic tradition has in Ireland (as
others have claimed it has in England) reinforced a definition of canonical,
or 'major', poetry that continues into the present to favour the lyric poem.
Both have further claimed that through that particular genre the (male) poet
discovers and strengthens 'spirit' as the self by surmounting and transcend-
ing the object or body that first kindled desire and sparked the alleged rev-
olutionary 'spirit'. That desire leads to the creation of a national and Irish
literature that remains bound by an ideology that frustrates real political
change. Genuine revolution is undermined from within by the delusions of
an ideology of Romantic genius, a mistaken belief that the individual subject,
aggrandised by the very process of writing Romantic, 'revolutionary' poetry
or translating powerful poems from Ireland's past, may represent through
his 'national spirit' a united Ireland whose unity of body and spirit is always

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only symbolic, always (like desire itself) deferred,5 and always united hi-
erarchically: the spirit rules the body. The maternal body and the united
motherland underwrite a masculine fantasy that gives the male body/spirit
'unity' through its narcissistic mirroring in the fantasmatic mother of the
psychoanalytic mirror stage. What keeps the wished-for unity always at one
step removed is precisely the expansion of what is perceived to be a uni-
fied, individual subjectivity at the expense of a community that is thereby
only further removed from, and further sutured by, the rise of the newly
postcolonial subject.
Indeed, the very priority of spirit to body in this paradigm may be por-
trayed as mollifying in a political situation that shows no signs of fully
democratising. The body, as always, is to blame for not fully conforming
to 'form', but, according to this view, we may at least take comfort in the
survival of spirit in 'art'. Lloyd disparages not only the self-aggrandisement
behind the urge for national unity that underwrote various poetic ambi-
tions; more particularly he indicts its aesthetic consequences: a canonical
Irish literature that has failed to take advantage of the alternative, empow-
ering strategies of its very alterity as a 'minor literature'. Lloyd concludes
that Irish cultural nationalism was misled by the Enlightenment dream of
an 'archetypal or representative man' (the gender is deliberate) who could
at once represent the nature and the 'total essence of the human' (16-17).
Yet if Lloyd is correct - that the drive toward canon formation misshaped
a masculinist and nationalist mission in the cracked looking glass of its En-
lightenment and English Romantic models - then we can well imagine how
that mistaken purpose has affected the writings of women who were doubly
estranged, through gender bias as well as through postcolonial disempow-
erment.
If Irish cultural nationalism has, as Lloyd and Boland have argued from
their different perspectives and agendas, assumed the role of a national (and,
indeed, racial or ethnic) spirit of individual and representative genius at the
cost of genuine community, then we might well ask where one might locate -
and what has happened to - the body in a nationalist poetry that Boland
describes as a 'confusion' of 'the public poem and the political poem'. Boland
in 'Subject Matters' proposes that one of the two choices available to her as
an Irish woman who also writes was to 'write my life into the Irish poem in
the way tradition dictated - as mythic distaff of the national tradition'. But
she chose what she implies was a more challenging route:

I could confront the fact that in order to write the Irish poem, I would have to
alter, for myself, the powerful relations between subject and object which were
established there. That in turn involved disrupting the other values encoded

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in those relations: the authority of the poet. Its place in the historic legend.
And the allegory of nationhood which had customarily been shadowed and
enmeshed in the image of the woman.
But in reality I had no choice. I was that image come to life. I had walked
out of the pages of The Nation, the cadences of protest, the regret of emigrant
ballads. And yet I spoke with the ordinary and fractured speech of a woman
living in a Dublin suburb, whose claims to the visionary experience would be
sooner made on behalf of a child or a tree than a century of struggle. I was a
long way from what [Thomas] Davis thought of as a national poet. And yet
my relation to the national poem - as its object, its past - was integral and
forceful and ominous. (Object Lessons, 184-5)

Boland concludes that, 'given the force of the national tradition and the claim
it had made on Irish literature', only a 'subversive private experience' could
now offer to the political poem 'true perspective and authority'. And that
authority, according to Boland, 'could be guaranteed only by an identity -
and this included a sexual identity - which the poetic tradition, and the
structure of the Irish poem, had almost stifled'.
What is the relation between the sexual identity of the individual poet,
her chosen poetic structure (or form), and the form that is the feminine and
maternal body that has structured the myths, and the contextual realities, of
the Irish poetic tradition? While Boland, co-author of the The Making of a
Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms is of the three poets considered
here the one most associated with such matters, in the works of Medbh
McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain we also encounter quite power-
ful formal responses to a history in which the (male) cultural nationalist
'expresses' (finds the form for) the national spirit that the (female) body at
once inspires and grounds. How these women poets define 'spirit' in relation
to the bodies in their poems that are - like postcolonial culture itself in re-
lation to the dominant culture of the coloniser - anomalous or exceptional
suggests some surprising answers to Lloyd's unavoidable question: 'If the
function of literature is to form and unite a people not yet in existence, how
will a writer of sufficient stature arise, given that it is from the people he must
arise if he is to express the spirit of the nation?' (Lloyd, 73) Indeed, as femi-
nists have argued for some time, the 'people' are likely to unite precisely not in
their identification with the exceptional individual (the hero or leader, for ex-
ample) but through the exclusion of an otherness within the body politic that
expresses itself as sexual difference, which means that 'the people' are very
likely to express a 'humanity' that is by this very process of exclusion there-
fore male. Hence the 'form' that community takes in response to literature
may itself prove to be, in Judith Butler's paradigm for Bodies that Matter, one

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that coheres only by excluding from its total vision certain exceptions, certain
bodies that because they are visible only as 'matter', 'ground', 'not-spirit' do
not matter sufficiently to include them in the form of community.6 And there
is a further dilemma for the woman poet whose 'spirit' occupies a body that
is (in Luce Irigaray's terms) not 'one'. With whom is she to identify if there is
not only not yet (in Lloyd's terms) a community, much less a nation, emerg-
ing on the ground and through the figure of Mother Ireland but also no
clear model at the level of the individual psyche for how she might desire
and then dominate that female body which will then represent unity? While
there is insufficient space here to address all of these issues, we will see that
for each of these three women poets questions of the self and its problematic
relation to body and spirit are not separable from questions of community,
questions that themselves question - particularly through their poetic figu-
ration of absence - the very possibility of either a unified self or a unified
community.
In none of these Irish women poets can the body be defined fully in op-
position to 'spirit', and in none can we easily derive an alternative poetics
or politics of the nation that is 'grounded' or 'rooted' in a body that is ma-
ternal. But in McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain we might find a surprising
alternative to Boland's own insistence that the woman poet must cease to be
an object in poems and become (in her words) a 'subject' who 'matters'.
Contrary to Boland's extension of a secular and Enlightenment ideal of
representative subjecthood to women, McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain
have increasingly offered in their poems bodies that, as objects, become vehi-
cles and even forms for the reincarnation of (in various senses) 'spirit'. That
fascination with an embodied spirit links these two poets less to twentieth-
century Anglo-American feminist traditions (to which Boland is herself in
part indebted for her international success) than to the subject matters of
the most influential Irish poet of that century, W.B. Yeats. To Boland's
argument that women writers become political when they eschew victim-
hood while representing those women who remain victims, McGuckian
and Ni Chuilleanain often present speakers or historical figures who ac-
quire agency through bodily surrender. To Boland's anger that women in
Ireland have been historically silenced or absent they offer a poetry that
figures silence and absence as replete with strategies for rethinking the
course of narrative and of history. And to her objections to an Irish and
Catholic iconography of woman, its veiling of her 'actual' or 'real' body,
they suggest that the body is itself phantasmatic, a broken relic that is in
excess of history and yet remains, in Ni Chuilleanain's 'The Brazen Serpent',
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True stories wind and hang like this


Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.
Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one free foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.7

In this poem Ni Chuilleanain offers a brief narrative based on the story of


the brazen serpent, Moses' icon of brass offered to heal those bitten by the
serpents sent as punishment by God. Like that talisman, the saint's relic offers
special properties: in becoming a broken piece of a once-living body, the body
that has suffered accrues value as each fragment of the body is pieced out
and labelled. While the symbols of patriarchal authority are also real in this
poem - the episcopal seal, the sister's own veil, a bishop's command that the
real world be sealed from view - the secret authority of the sister's relics, as
of her own hidden life and body, persists in the very blankness of the sheet,
paper and veil, a story just at the edge of which lies the ambiguous serpent
and that other, missing narrative of woman and desire.
Lloyd has suggested that the martyr is a metaphor for 'the individual's
relation to the nation' (71). In this sense the martyr serves the same function
as literature, for both exist as 'the medium of the spiritual nation . . . the
very form of the national constitution' that prefigures the actual and political
document. Here and elsewhere he defines as ideology the following related
acts of representation: 1) the aesthetic, 2) the martyr who represents the
'spirit' which establishes the relation between individual and nation, and 3)
the ideals of equal representation for all in the nation coming into being.
While Boland likewise investigates how these mutually reinforcing versions
of representation maintain the force of an invisible but nevertheless repres-
sive ideology, locating in their operation the violent erasure of the female
body, McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain are more interested in how the body
reshapes or even metamorphoses under conditions of threat, becoming itself
at once form and content, structure and substance, history or story and re-
sistant event. In so doing McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain are writers who

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in fact follow more closely than does Boland the 'minority' model offered
by Lloyd: far from being merely a literature that fails to achieve major or
canonical status, minority literature as Lloyd adapts it from the model used
by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, refuses 'the production of narratives
of ethical identity' and, indeed, refuses the very notion of 'the narrative as
productive' (Lloyd, 21 ).8
What may be most exciting about these two poets and the different ways
in which they evoke the body by refusing to represent it either through lan-
guage or through the role of 'poet' is that they also avoid conventional tropes
about the female body as inevitably maternal and therefore reproductive. In
this sense their work may be viewed as aligned to Gayatri Spivak's work
on gender and postcolonialism. In her recent discussion of what she defines
as the too-easy homology of political and aesthetic representation, Spivak
argues in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason that in postcolonial theory cer-
tain contemporary oppositions to theory itself - as in the statement 'there
is no more representation; there's nothing but action' - fails to make the
distinction she prefers to make between political and aesthetic representa-
tion: that 'running them together, especially in order to say that beyond both
is where oppressed subjects speak, act, and know for themselves, leads to
an essentialist, Utopian politics'.9 Ironically, such a conflation of represen-
tations merely reinforces the postcolonial theorist as a 'subject' who speaks
for the silenced subaltern female who, like the body, is suppose to precede
and ground representation: 'representing them, the intellectuals represent
themselves as transparent' (Spivak, 257), or, as Lloyd might say, as 'spirit'
to their 'body'. The silenced figure, male and female, returns in the poetry of
McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain as itself a sometimes sinister but nonethe-
less corrective spirit; a revenant that reveals the gaps and silences that shaped
the past and misshape the present, the female poet who speaks through that
palpable absence does not claim to make either nation or history 'whole'.

Representation, reincarnation and bodily remainders


Whereas in Boland's poetry after 1995 what she calls the 'public poem'
becomes 'political' when the (female) object of the Irish past becomes
the (female) subject who is the present and - as she has said - 'entitled'
poet, McGuckian reverses that process in her 1998 Shelmalier, turning the
poet/subject into an object through which the dead - and the past - come
back to life. Boland in 'Subject Matters' and throughout her 1998 volume
The Lost Land makes clear her wish to replace the male hero with the un-
sung Irish female.10 McGuckian, on the other hand, celebrates those Irish
heroes as 'feminine Christs', making them, like the speaker, not a subject

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GUINN BATTEN

in history but a 'collected object' of history, their bodily pulses still beating
beyond death, directed simultaneously to the past and to the future:
Their pulses are differently timed, mule-
powered, safely poured in two directions
into time, into the collected object.
All their fingers are together, they are
tight-lipped, unwakeable mothers
embraced to the hilt and reconceived.
(The Feminine Christs')11
The differences between the two poets' responses to their different com-
munities' commemorations of one moment in what Boland calls in 'Subject
Matters' the 'hopeful past' - the 1798 Rising - are striking. Ni Chuilleanain,
on the other hand, while she published no book in 1998, in her 1995 vol-
ume The Brazen Serpent 'embodies' history, whether as blank sheet, in the
snapshot of a crime victim ('Vierge Ouvrant', 36), or in 'signatures on slips
of ravelled paper' ('The Secret', 42).
Of the three poets, McGuckian and Ni Chuilleanain are the two who have
been by turns praised and criticised for being obscure. Referents are typically
elusive in McGuckian's poetry because of her compounded similes that lack
stable grounds and her innovative and exciting manipulations of syntax that
require the reader to wander endlessly and aimlessly, like desire itself, from
the point of connection between subject and predicate. As critics have ob-
served, she deploys metonymic displacement and metaphoric condensation
(the strategies Freud identifies in the syntax of dreams) in ways that violate
expectations of a mimetic, one-to-one correspondence of word and object
that underwrites the agency of the subject. In the Ni Chuilleanain poem,
the elusive referent is more often narrative, manifested as a secret around
which the poem draws and by which it is energised. If Boland's poetry, on
the other hand, is more accessible, it is in part because, despite her frequent
castigations of the privileged male speaking subject of the lyric poem (a
topic to which I will return), she is not so much interested in reconceiving a
less traditional form for the voice of her typically unified subject as in ensur-
ing that women have an equal right to that form and its Romantic and lyric
tradition.
While Boland's poems increasingly use a syntax that separates subject and
predicate, the effect is the news bulletin or the pithy, bitten off, statement of
fact. The point of her politics as a poet is to achieve equal privilege so that
she may represent, albeit self-consciously and even ironically through what
are acknowledged as the limited forms of art, the lost women of the past who
may now be embodied in the poetic subject of the present who is, herself, a

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woman. And for a woman poet, her own private, even ordinary, life offers
'a politic of its own' (Object Lessons, 194). It offers it because of the very
disjunction of that private world from the 'context of public opinion and
assumption' (195). Women, she argues, once the objects of the Irish poem,
are now, like Pygmalion's Galatea, assuming life and subjectivity:

The obstinate and articulate privacy of their lives was now writing the poem,
rather than simply being written by it. If this did not make a new political
poem, it at least constituted a powerful revision of the old one. As more and
more poems by Irishwomen were written, it was obvious that something was
happening to the Irish poem. It was what happens to any tradition when pre-
viously mute images within it come to awkward and vivid life, when the icons
return to haunt the icon makers. That these disruptions had been necessary
at all, and that they were awkward and painful when they happened, had
something to do with the force of the national tradition.
(Object Lessons, 197)

Boland concludes that 'my womanhood', once the 'object and icon' of the
political poem in Ireland 'became part of its authorship' (200). But that did
not diminish the difficulties inherent in the political poem: 'How to draw
the reality into the poem, and therefore into a subversive relation with the
rhetoric, is the crucial question' (200). Thus while the 'emergence of women
poets in Ireland guarantees nothing' because they, too, are subjects in and
to language (rhetoric), nevertheless 'where icons walk out of the poem to
become authors of it, their speculative energy is directed not just to the
iconography which held them hostage but to the poem itself (200). This
requires a double strategy, she writes, of 'dismantling the poetic persona
which supported' the male and bardic tradition of the political poem and 'to
seek the authority to do this not from a privileged or historic stance within
the Irish poem but from the silences it created and sustained' (201). Where
do we find those silences in Boland, and how do they compare with the
haunting spirits and haunted absences of the other two poets?

Representing women: Eavan Boland


In The Lost Land, Boland opens with reference to the national tradition as
it was represented by a bardic order that, by the nineteenth century, had
lost its authority with the loss of the land and language once guaranteed
by aristocratic privilege. Toward that authority Boland has ambivalence if
not hostility, for 'whatever the dispossession and humiliation of an outer
world, maleness remained a caste system within the poem', as she writes in
'Subject Matters': 'The shadow of bardic privilege still fell on the Irish poem
when I was young. It was hard to question and harder to shift. Yet I knew

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GUINN BATTEN

I would have to do both if I wanted access to the political poem in Ireland'


(Object Lessons, 191). Because women 'had for so long been a natural object
relation for the Irish poem', when women began to write poems themselves
it 'was as though a fixed part of the Irish poem had broken free' (191). As in
her much-praised earlier poem 'Mise Eire', Boland in The Lost Land turns
frequently to that fixed poetic part as it assumes personhood, a process
whereby Mother Ireland becomes an ordinary (but therefore exemplary)
Irish woman. In 'Mother Ireland' (Lost Land, 42-3), the motherland itself
acquires language and subjectivity. Indeed, she might be said to be either
emigrating or, like a housewife, leaving home in order to find herself.

At first
I was land
I lay on my back to be fields

I did not see.


I was seen.

Once a subject of language ('words fell on me. / Seeds. Raindrops'.), she


moves from learning her name, to rising up, to remembering. The narrative of
this poem is history itself, a straightforward teleology even if told (literally)
from the ground up as the base, one might say, acquires the tools of the
superstructure:

Now I could tell my story.


It was different
from the story told about me.

When she looks back with nostalgic, maternal love 'they misundersrtood
(sic) me': 'Come back to us/they said./ Trust me I whispered'.
But the speaker of the poems is as much a colonial Prospero as she is a
ready wielder of prosopopoeia on behalf of the dispossessed:

Out of my mouth they come:


The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
they dispossessed.
What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.

And the dead walk? ('Witness')

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Interestingly, in this poem that echoes Yeats's 'Fragments', Boland takes back
the agency that Yeats gives to the female director of the seance: 'Where got
I that truth?/Out of a medium's mouth,/Out of nothing it came'. Like the
spiritualist, but as an Irish native rather than as a medium, she makes the
graves of history open. Boland has made clear her refusal of the supernatural
and, indeed, of any testimony from such paranormal events as the statues
some claimed to have seen move in Ireland in 1988. She writes in 'Moving
Statues' (a title that might have led her audience to anticipate another Pyg-
malion/Galatea theme from Boland) that many in Ireland were duped by
such visions (she calls the phenomenon first the 'dark forces at the cross-
roads' [16], then the 'hysteria of collective superstition', then later 'a dark
hysteria in religion' [20]). If their impulses, she contends, are strikingly sim-
ilar to those of the visionary male poet, they are also betrayed by the privi-
leged culture he represents: in Ireland as in England poetic tradition derives
its authority from 'distance from such forces' (16) and a usurpation of them
(a secularised 'religion of poetry' [18]). That privileged culture denies the
authority of a woman poet who insists on claiming that 'however ordinary'
the routines of her own domestic world she nevertheless insists on standing
'at the lyric center of my experience and . .. wished to make a claim for that
experience' (17). 'A shadow fell between me and my sense that I could get
from that historic poetic past the sanction I needed', Boland writes, 'both for
my subject matter and the claim I wished to make for it in formal terms' (17).

Nationalism as reincarnation: Medbh McGuckian


Whereas in Boland's poems the dead are unlikely to walk except through
tropes that the poet openly and self-consciously controls in a deliberate pro-
cess of reclaiming a lost history of woman's reality, McGuckian writes in her
1998 collection Shelmalier that 'Keeping magic out has itself the character/
of magic':
. . . - a picture held us captive
and we could not get outside it
for it lay in our language in the uniform
of a force that no longer existed.
Peace was the target he was aiming at,
the point at which doubt becomes senseless,
the last thing that willfinda home.
(Tulsus Paradoxus')
McGuckian shares Boland's scepticism of language's capacity to liberate,
given its complicity with oppression ('force'), but she goes beyond Boland's
Platonic understanding of language as political 'rhetoric', implying here that

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it operates at the unconscious level of ideology. The ambiguity of reference


here - Who wears the uniform and what side is he on? If the picture no longer
exists, when did it? Why is it still a force? - offers a complex and sophisticated
understanding of what Boland so often calls simply the 'shadows' of power,
for in the McGuckian poem power may be held by the heroes who lost as well
as by those who won the wars of the past. Further, the poem's syntax makes
it unclear as to whether the uniform may not itself be, like the language in
which it is clothed, a veil that may be duplicitous. If there is no getting outside
language in this poem, then how may the woman poet locate an alternative
to its sexist or colonialist constructions of history? Can an aesthetic that,
like language, captivates also liberate?
A word appears here that we might associate with a Boland claim for
the authority of the domestic - 'home' - but in the McGuckian poem it
is, like 'peace', and like 'unity', deferred. Only when doubt - a sceptical
consciousness that Boland prefers in 'Moving Statues' to credulity - sinks into
senselessness, can that unconscious state in the McGuckian poem become the
object which, in this poem, is like 'peace' the 'point'. Yet peace is also a state
of mind that is already, even before it is reached as a 'target', also, sadly, an
object of further contestation. The contest is not simply for a home (whose
Ireland?) but also for an object whose home, like desire itself or, indeed, like
the full unification of the 'subject' or the state, by definition is deferred. In
McGuckian's bleak view of the hopefulness of the Northern Ireland peace
process, she recognises that hope, in taking for granted the appeal to what
she calls (in the lines that follow) an 'incorruptible' colour, refuses to see the
totality ('everything') that would turn the perhaps all-green promise of the
future into an all 'brown' and soiled history. Behind and beneath hope are
the returning and cautionary ghost heroes of past wars who are backlit by
the glare of the present.
They may either promise or prevent the fulfillment of hope, as the poem's
first stanza suggests:

At first something like an image was there:


he had for me a pre-love which leaves
everything as it is. We do not see everything
as something, everything that is brown,
we take for granted the incorruptible
colouredness of the colour. But a light
shines on them from behind, they do not
themselves glow. As a word has only
an aroma of meaning, as the really faithful
memory is the part of a wound
that goes quiet.

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The presumably female speaker here is the object of a 'pre-love' that is offered
by a male subject ('he') who is given form by the speaker as 'the really
faithful/memory': he is 'the part of the wound /that goes quiet'. To Boland's
'scar' of language, McGuckian offers instead a notion of the word as an
entity whose meaning is scented but silent, related through simile ('as') to
'part of a wound'. The speaker hears that 'part' of something not because she
has assumed what once was a male privilege but because she has been called
by masculine 'pre-love', and called as its object, to witness an image (indeed,
more significantly, 'something like an image') that has found its home in her
as a calling which seemed to leave 'everything as it is'. While that phrase may
be read as 'leaving alone . . . unchanged', it may also be read as a moment of
vision in which 'everything' '/s': a moment when totality is glimpsed. If this
is poetic vision, it may require us to understand that seeing, often associated
by feminists with a masculine gaze that desires and seeks to possess its object,
does not necessarily mean that totality - again, 'everything' - is an object:
'something'. Neither is the colour (like 'uniform') of what is seen necessarily
what it seems.
In this poem by a woman, a masculine image from the past has found its
embodiment in what is now her memory, and her wound, both of which
are now 'his' home as well as hers. Far from rejecting the maternal impli-
cations of such an act of imagination as incarnation, McGuckian uses in
'Pulsus Paradoxus' images that recall another of her poems that is explic-
itly about motherhood. Dedicated to her daughter, Emer, 'On Her Second
Birthday' is written in the voice of the daughter. She remembers a time that
may well evoke a moment before life begins as inception and incarnation:
'In the beginning I was no more/Than a rising and falling mist/You could see
through without seeing'. In the second stanza, McGuckian uses simile (as she
does frequently) at once to displace and to embed within figural speech the
content/meaning of the poem. Figuration thereby, unexpectedly, becomes
matter or body. She refers to 'soul' only indirectly, but it seems, like writing
in the lines below, to precede bodily birth:

A flame burnt up the paper


On which my gold was written,
The wind like a soul
Seeking to be born
Carried off half
Of what I was able to say.12

As the child in this minus time of being dallies in the trees, a 'shadow'
hovering at the edge of the horizon 'Which I mistook for my own' gradually

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guides the daughter-to-be into life by offering to her a model of embodiment


not as being but as metamorphosis:
The more it changed
The more it changed me into itself,
Till I regarded it as more real
Than all else, more ardent
Than love. Higher than the air
Of a dream,
A field in which I ripened
From an unmoving, continually nascent
Light into pure light.
At last the daughter-speaker acknowledges that her own life is a 'flowing'
'outwards', not toward a reunion with that shadow as 'spirit' but, more
miraculously, as 'body': 'I know its name: / One day it will pass my mind
into its body'.
Throughout Shelmalier the minds of spirits, or more particularly ghosts,
pass through the speaker's mind. Likewise, in these poems as in early
McGuckian collections we have a sense that the objects surrounding, en-
closing, even imprisoning the speaker are more alive, more connected to the
world, than she. The subject in such poems exists only negatively, through
what she is 'not' in relation to material circumstances. But in these poems,
which are so often sinister, the negation cuts in two directions: in a refusal
to recall the injuries of the past and in the erosion of that repression. In
'Dream in a Train' a 'house is a perfect body/Surpassing, unwriting me'. The
poem concludes with the image of negative form that hints at (but does not
promise) 'awakening': 'a swimmer/whose sigh is a fold/imposed upon the
waves Jsuggestive of an awakening' (my emphasis). These are poems very
much concerned with what McGuckian has called her own, personal awak-
ening to the history and ideologies of an Irish nationalism about which she
heard little as a Catholic girl growing up in Northern Ireland. While Boland
in The Lost Land seeks to usurp the privilege of Ireland's male heroes, mak-
ing herself a subject at their expense, in McGuckian's Shelmalier the martyrs
of 1998 repossess the speaker's body, speaking through her even as 'door'
and 'window' - openings that are framed and that thereby become inanimate
objects - embrace 'as if they were living, not speechless':
the frozen hedge lipped and flared
so every inch is thick
with a different flower,
not aflowerescapes.

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The dead among the spices of words


brush their eyes over me, as if
all my limbs were separate.
They are pearls that have got
into my clothes, they stir about
briskly with a form of tenderness
like a bird on its nest. I may
glide into them before they become set.
('The Sofa in the Window with the
Trees Outside', Shelmalier)

Even as an object (in this poem the hedge) 'lipped' and therefore reproduced
('flowered'), so does the speaker find herself identifying with the dead (the
seeds or eggs that are 'pearls') who themselves in turn will incarnate her in the
nest of a bird over which they brood as simile. She not only hears their speech
but also finds that it has usurped her own, even as the dead look through
her own eyes (evoking from Ariel's song in Shakespeare's The Tempest the
dead pearls that were once living eyes) at a world made different for her by
their looking. In a final and remarkable inversion, their gaze returns us to
the first image of the hedge's lips, an image that might on first reference have
suggested the hedge school for Irish Catholics under the Penal Laws, but the
hedges are now trees whose bodies, while sunken, also have the organs of
speech: 'they / are bodily sunk to the lips / in the age of the garden'. Notably,
these trees (of knowledge? of life?) are sunk not in an Ireland 'racy of the
soil' or in the golden age of a sinless past to which the term 'garden' so often
refers but, rather, in time: the 'age' of the garden.

Bodily remainders: Eilean Ni Chuilleanain


Of Eilean Ni Chuilleanain's poetry John Kerrigan has written that it 'gives
hiddenness a location beyond the specificity of place'.13 And one location to
which she is drawn as a poet, he argues, is what Daniel Corkery called 'the
hidden Ireland' of a persistent Gaelic culture. But at Trinity College in Dublin
she is a scholar of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature
that rose on what Boland calls the 'bardic shadows' of a dying literature
in Ireland. And beyond those two locations and literatures Ni Chuilleanain
often associates herself with a third to which the 'nomadic' that she refers
to in this essay's opening citation no doubt alludes: an Irish tradition of
'nomadism' or even exile in Europe, learning other languages and looking
back critically at Ireland through their resources. While Boland defines the
'bardic tradition' as inexorably male and Irish, Ni Chuilleanain reclaims it
as neither, upsetting the oppositions that patriarchal colonialism itself sets

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into place between the terms male and female, English and Irish. Indeed, like
the nineteenth-century poet James Clarence Mangan, who published in The
Nation, she uses translation, in Seamus Deane's words, to question 'the very
basis of Irish cultural nationalism, which, after all, assumes the translatability
of Irish spirit into English words',14 a questioning that, in both cases, in fact
respects and even empowers that which lies beyond the powers of language.
We might witness this nomadism in the title poem of Ni Chuilleanain's 2002
volume, 'The Girl Who Married the Reindeer', or in another poem in that
volume which takes up the linguist's journey of discovery and leads, at last,
not to the possession of a possessive ('his', 'hers') but, rather, to a ghostly
woman 'panting on the other side', who has been evoked by an Irish word
('glas') that means both 'green' and 'lock':

Until he reaches the language that has no word for his,


No word for hers, and is brought up sudden
Like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.
Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?
The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.
('Gloss/Clos/Glas')15

Kerrigan suggests that part of what remains occluded in Ni Chuilleanain's


carefully locked poems is bodily suffering, particularly as she has experienced
it in her visits with the ill and the dying. Those bodies in pain become parts
of other and unrelated narratives in her poems, even as they persist in her
poetry as troubling, underground currents. For example, he notes that in
'Passing Over in Silence', a poem whose line 'A hooked foot holding her
down' seems to evoke sexual violation, in fact 'hooked foot' is a reference
to cancer.16 'Studying the Language', which begins with 'hermits coming
out of their holes/Into the light' had its inception in a sickroom visit. Ni
Chuilleanain's intimacy with and insipiration from the injured body also
relates to her attraction to such elements of Catholic iconography as the
Sacred Heart and the Virgin. In his study of art and bodiliness in her poetry,
Dillon Johnston has suggested that the poet's foregrounding of such figures
is part of her scholarly and poetic fascination with the Counter Reformation,
a history that Johnston notes has its own ties to Irish nationalist culture and
whose art, the Baroque, figures frequently in Ni Chuilleanain's poetry. He
cites her response to one 'proto-Baroque' work, Correggio's Leda: 'Here was
a body at the centre of a story, female and pleased in all its dimensions. I was
suddenly back in a world before the upheaval of the Reformation, before the
Protestant war on icons of the body, rituals and material ceremonies' (191).17
Of Ni Chuilleanain's 'Daniel Grose' (1995) Johnston offers an illuminating
reading, revealing the ways in which Ni Chuilleanain differs from Boland

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in her understanding and use of the male gaze. He notes, for example, the
presence of the cailleach (one embodiment of Kathleen ni Houlihan) in this
poem.
We might further note that the female poet, in becoming that cailleach,
assumes as in the tradition of the Hag of Beare the position of a speaking
subject whose haggardness expresses the impoverishment and even ruination
of Ireland. Indeed, in this poem she assumes the role of the malefigurebacklit
in the essay's first citation of Ni Chuilleanain ('a man in the foreground,
silhouetted against a place'), offering to the military draughtsman in the
poem what he takes only to be an object of perspective:
Where is the human figure
He needs to show the scale
And all the time that's passed
And how different things are now?
{Brazen Serpent, 34)

In Ni Chuilleanain's poem, as often in McGuckian's work, the very building -


in this case, a ruin - seems to be giving birth: 'The breach widens at every
push'. Yet this opening is also indicative of a despoliation that bespeaks a
traumatic silence until 'a taste for ruins' brings the male gaze (with its own
wounding apertures) to measure both the (female) openings that themselves
gaze outward (The way the pierced loop keeps exactly/The dimensions of
the first wounding/Holding in the same spasm the same long view') and the
male 'upright of the tower'.
If 'things are different now', the catalogue of what such aesthetic mea-
suring, such hygienic transformation of the sexualised body of the ruin into
a 'draught', leaves out of the story tells the reader that difference depends
on perspective, on who occupies the ground, and on the violence of what
isn't heard as well as what is in the allegedly enlightened, non-threatening
perspective of the nineteenth-century surveyor: 'The old woman by the oak
tree / Can be pressed into service / To occupy the foreground./ Her feet are
warmed by drifting leaves'. Where Boland would speak for that figure, em-
body her in the speaker's more authoritative perspective, Ni Chuilleanain
at least twice removes the old woman from a speaker who is watching her
through his instruments of measure - the imperial, empirical extensions of
the organs of sense - instruments through which he fails either to see or to
hear her. Perhaps not surprisingly, this lends to the cailleach more power
than the female figures in Boland's poems are usually granted. It is she who
controls not only the 'measures' of 'verse' but also what Boland calls the
'rhythm of the crime', the 'rictus of delight' that is an incantory opening
into, and an evil eye capable of blighting, the landscape hidden from view:

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He stands too far away


To hear what she is saying,
How she routinely measures
The verse called the midwife's curse
On all that catches her eye, naming
The scholar's indexfinger,the piper's hunch,
The squint, the rub, the itch of every trade.

Finally in this poem the body of the woman persists as an irreducible re-
mainder of the Enlightenment perspective that would represent the landscape
as map or as art. Precisely in doing so, she prevents the surveyor from ob-
taining a unified perspective, further shattering both landscape and woman
into the part objects of science and of art. A reminder, stuck in the opened
gap between subject and object, male and female, colonist and coloniser, of
what the masterful perspective does not enclose in its grasp of totality, the
body therefore serves precisely as the 'breach' that will produce an alterna-
tive to representation itself. It offers its own perspective on what and whom
history, and community, hurts.
Indeed, perhaps the image of community that remains most compelling
in Ni Chuilleanain's poetry is that offered in 'Studying the Language' of the
'cliff . . . as full as a hive' of hermits who do sometimes come 'Into the light',
for the poet who writes 'I call this my work, these decades and stations - /
Because, without these, I would be a stranger here'. In the gap between
Boland's view that a woman writer finds her voice by becoming her own
subject and representing it faithfully, and Ni Chuilleanain's that the woman
writer finds that voice through the objects of her poem who lead her from
a hermit's estrangement into human connection, we might locate an im-
portant and ongoing theoretical debate concerning the possibility of a fully
democratic community. As three of its major contestants - Judith Butler,
Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek - have agreed in their separate contributions
to Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the
Left, the very possibility of a democracy that represents fully and equally
all subjects requires that there be competing claims for the occupancy of the
unfulfilled, and probably unfulfillable, position of the 'subject' in the rep-
resentative 'bodies' of the state.18 Ni Chuilleanain, finding throughout her
career subtle strategies for representing by not claiming to represent authen-
tic 'muscle and blood', for serving others by not serving as a subject who
represents what she calls in the following poem 'the absent girl', redefines
what is, and can only be, missing in every effort to achieve justice in the court
of history or in the canon that revises - the body and its own irrecuperable
time that carries with it its own shadows:

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She can feel the glass cold


But with no time for pain
Searches for a memory lost with muscle and blood -
She misses her ligaments and the marrow of her bones.
The clock chatters; with no beating heart
Lung or breast how can she tell the time?
Her skin is shadowed
Where once the early sunlight blazed.19

NOTES
1 Medbh McGuckian, The Soldiers of Year Two (Winston Salem: Wake Forest
University Press, 2002).
2 Quoted in John Kerrigan, 'Hidden Ireland: Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Munster
Poetry', Critical Quarterly 40.4 (Winter 1998), p. 86.
3 Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1995), PP- I ^3 and 182.
4 See Catriona Clutterbuck, 'Irish Critical Responses to Self-Representation in
Eavan Boland, 1987-1995', Colby Quarterly 35.4 (Dec 1999), pp. 275-87 and
'Irish Women's Poetry and the Republic of Ireland: Formalism as Form', in Writ-
ing in the Irish Republic: Literature, Culture, Politics, ed. Ray Ryan (London:
Macmillan, 2000), pp. 17-43; Clair Wills, Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality
in Northern Irish Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
5 David Lloyd, Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and
the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley and London: University
of California Press, 1987), pp. 70-1.
6 See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex' (New
York and London: Routledge, 1993).
7 Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, The Brazen Serpent (Loughcrew: Gallery &c Winston
Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1991), p. 16.
8 See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans.
Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
9 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a
History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
i999)? PP- 2.56-7.
10 Eavan Boland, The Lost Land (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998).
11 Medbh McGuckian, Shelmalier (Loughcrew: Gallery & Winston Salem: Wake
Forest University Press, 1998).
12 Medbh McGuckian, Marconi's Cottage (Loughcrew: Gallery & Winston Salem:
Wake Forest University Press, 1991).
13 John Kerrigan, 'Hidden Ireland: Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Munster Poetry',
p. 90.
14 Seamus Deane, 'Poetry and Song 1800-1890' in The Field Day Anthology of Irish
Writing, ed. Seamus Deane. (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991), vol. 2, p. 6.
15 Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, The Girl Who Married the Reindeer (Loughcrew: Gallery
8c Winston Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 2002).

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16 Kerrigan, 'Hidden Ireland'.


17 Dillon Johnston,' "Our Bodies' Eyes and Writing Hands": Secrecy and Sensuality
in Ni Chuilleanain's Baroque Art', in Gender and Sexuality in Modern beland,
ed. Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis (Amherst, MA: University
of Massachusetts Press, 1997), p. 191.
18 Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. Contingency, Hegemony,
Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York and London:
Verso, 2000).
19 Eilean Ni Chuilleanain The Second Voyage (Loughcrew: Gallery 8t Winston
Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1997), p. 13.

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SHANE MURPHY

Sonnets, centos and long lines:


Muldoon, Paulin, McGuckian
and Carson

One way or another, it does seem that Irish writers again and again find
themselves challenged by the violent juxtaposition of the concepts of 'Ireland'
and T. Irish writers have a tendency to interpose themselves between the
two .. . either to bring them closer together, or to force them further apart. It's
as if they feel obliged to extend the notion of being a 'medium' to becoming a
'mediator'.
(Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I, 2000)x

According to Paul Muldoon, Irish writers experience an often disabling ten-


sion between the urge to express private concerns in their work and the
compulsion to address identity politics, inherited atavisms and the legacy
of sectarian strife. His comments restate the competing definitions of what
Seamus Heaney terms 'the government of the tongue'. This is an obligation
to 'concede to the corrective pressures of social, moral, political and histor-
ical reality'. Yet it is also a liberating manifesto, allowing the poet to submit
to 'the jurisdiction of achieved form', with poetry 'as its own vindicating
force'.2 Heaney has consistently attempted to address these apparently con-
flictual imperatives. In Wintering Out and North, he engaged with what are
euphemistically termed 'the Troubles' by advancing images of bodies drawn
from the bogs at Tollund, Grauballe and Windeby as archaeological emblems
of victimhood. This poetic reflex, whilst deep-felt and instinctive, was inter-
preted as providing decontextualised analogies (if not unintentional justifi-
cations) for the killings in Northern Ireland. Heaney had become, according
to his fellow-poet Ciaran Carson, 'the laureate of violence - a mythmaker,
an anthropologist of ritual killing, an apologist for "the situation", in the
last resort, a mystifier'.3
The application of mythical parallels and quotations from exemplary au-
thors gave rise to a poetry that exhibited a tormented self-reflexivity. For
instance, citing Shakespeare, Heaney said,

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I am Hamlet the Dane,


skull-handler, parablist,
smeller of rot
in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
and affections
('Viking Dublin: Trial
Pieces', 1975)

Similarly, in 'Away from It All' in Station Island (1984), the speaker is about
to have a guilt-laden meal of lobster, when quotations are said 'to rise / like
rehearsed alibis'. The poet cites a passage from Czeslaw Milosz's The Native
Realm:

I was stretched between contemplation


Of a motionless point
And the command to participate
Actively in history.4

In his preface to The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, Heaney quotes these
same lines and provides Milosz's own interpretation of this inner conflict.
Fearing the 'delusiveness of words and thoughts', the poet must maintain
'a firm hold on tangible things undergoing constant change; that is, control
over the motor that moves them in society - namely politics'.5 In the poem,
however, Heaney cannot resolve the conflict between the demands of poetry
and those of politics. The quotation, cited out of context, signifies an oppo-
sition between the two seemingly dichotomous positions, with the speaker
unable to comprehend how to participate actively in history: 'Actively} What
do you mean?'
While for Northern Irish writers such a dialectic is commonplace, sig-
nalling a heightened sense of their role in a time of violence, nevertheless
the poetic responses of the generation represented by the four poets un-
der discussion constitute a significant conceptual, if not a formal, departure
from the response of their precursor and contemporary, Seamus Heaney. As
John Goodby says, for those poets whose formative years coincided with the
eruption of the Northern Irish Troubles since 1968, conflict becomes 'more
insistently part of their mental furniture, less to be deplored in a simply moral
sense than incorporated and worked out within the poetry itself'.6 In what
follows, it will be argued that, in their respective oeuvres, Muldoon, Paulin,
McGuckian and Carson, all address issues stemming from the Northern Irish
conflict without being inhibited by strict demarcations between private and

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public discourse. They all employ structures of quotations not as 'rehearsed


alibis' but as part of a complicating, oblique approach to issues of historical
memory, identity and politics.

I
Paul Muldoon's poetry is reknowned for its precocious word-play and lin-
guistic experimentation. However, reluctant to concur with the poet's con-
tention that 'For "ludic" read "lucid" ', ('Errata', 1998)7 critics have reacted
with disquiet over the increasing obscurity of his poetry. Given free reign, its
associational logic tends towards obliquity, indecipherability and a madden-
ing lack of closure, all of which makes the reader's task onerous. Literary
humour abounds in his capricious oeuvre. For instance, the final poetic en-
jambment of 'Why Brownlee Left' depicting the horses 'shifting their weight
from foot to / Foot' is a literal translation of 'enjambef. The fifth line of the
tenth sonnet of 'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants' quotes the
fifth line from Shakespeare's tenth sonnet ('for thou art so possessed with
murd'rous hate'). And when joined together, the first letter of each line from
'Capercaillies' reads 'Is this a New Yorker poem, or what'. Yet such formal
complexity has equally been regarded as the enviable technical ingenuity of
a poet at the height of his powers; heralded as a practitioner of the 'New
Narrative' by the editors of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British
Poetry, his work has come to be seen as deploying reflexive, fragmentary
fictions suited to postmodernity.
'Something Else', an extended sonnet from Meeting the British (1987), is
typical of his impish, prismatic style. Its narrative thread flows with both
rhyme and reason from the contemplation of a dinner companion's lobster,
to thoughts of different kinds of dye. It alludes to the infamous anecdote of
how the nineteenth-century author Gerard de Nerval used to take his pet
lobster for a walk on a leash and to his tragic suicide in 1855 in the Rue de
la Vieille-Lanterne. All this makes the speaker 'think of something else, then
something else again'. The reader follows the narrative through a process
of analogic association, gleaning a scenario of ill-fated or misplaced desire
through, first, the recurrence of the colour red and, second, through the
poet's subtly constructed web of intertextual allusions. The cited texts upon
which the speaker muses, Nerval's dark, melancholic 'El Desdichado' and
his evanescent, non-linear romance Sylvie, both hint indirectly at his own
precarious relationship with the unnamed and silent companion. The form
of Muldoon's text is central to its meaning. Its mise-en-page and the clever
enjambment between the second quatrain and first tercet both numerically
represent time inexorably passing. The disrupted traditional sonnet rhyme

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scheme and the supplementary final line indicate a latent wish to deny both
the passing of time (the deaths of the lobster, Nerval, the relationship) and
writing's differance: its 'fugitive inks' complement the equally chimerical
objects of desire. Muldoon's choice here of Nerval as a literary exemplar is
symptomatic of his penchant for narrative indirection and signals his abiding
concern for the reader's activity. 'The point of poetry', he argues, is to be
acutely d/scomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch
us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away'.8 In contrast
to Heaney's lobster from 'Away from it All', a symbol of the poet out of his
element and struggling to survive, 'out of water, / fortified and bewildered',
Muldoon's lobster stands for a work which can survive in both the aesthetic
and public realms: it is the author who firmly guides the crustacean, not the
other way round.
Muldoon's associational logic may suggest arbitrariness as the paratactic
arrangement of his narratives and structures of imagery disrupt hierarchies.
In his sonnet 'The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife', (1987) the reader won-
ders which narrative is more important, that of the marriage between Strong-
bow and Aoife MacMurrough, a union leading to the Norman conquest of
Ireland, or the tense stand-off between the speaker and his dinner-guest,
Mary. Yet herein lies Muldoon's oblique approach to political concerns: by
personalising the distant, historical account, and by granting the intimate
encounter the enormity of historical significance, he intensifies the sense of
betrayal inherent within both accounts ('It's as if someone had slipped / a
double-edged knife between my ribs'). Similarly, in the marriage poem, 'Long
Finish' from Hay (1998), Muldoon incorporates an anecdote detailing the
senseless death of a man 'who'll shortly divine / the precise whereabouts of a
landmine / on the road between Beragh and Sixmilecross'. While with Heaney
such a death would feature prominently in a text, giving rise to a moral on
stoic fortitude in the midst of the Troubles (as in 'Keeping Going' from The
Spirit Level, 1996), with Muldoon it becomes an affective detail amongst
other narratives which tell of the fine line between 'longing and loss'.
As in Heaney's poetry, quotations, allusions and literary references are
not included for their own sake. In 'The More a Man Has the More a Man
Wants', Muldoon refers to Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' as a symbol of artis-
tic response to the Spanish Civil War. In '7, Middagh Street', he stages an
intertextual debate between Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden over W.B.
Yeats's artistic politics. Auden quotes from Yeats's 'The Man and the Echo'
(' "Did that play of mine / send out certain men" {certain men?) / "the
English shot...?"'), only to reply 'If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead / would
certain men have stayed in bed?' While Muldoon has disavowed 'the no-
tion of poetry as a moral force, offering respite or retribution',9 nevertheless

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poems such as 'Meeting the British' and 'Madoc - A Mystery' engage with
identity politics by re-examining the material forces involved in the colonial
encounter, refusing the simplistic equations of coloniser/colonised. The latter
text implicates both the Native Americans and the Irish in the colonisation of
America and is a prime example of his self-reflexive metafictions which use
quotations and historical narratives to question the processes of mediation.
'Madoc - A Mystery' (1990) is broken up into 233 sections, each surtitled
with the name of a philosopher. It deals with, amongst other themes, Thomas
Jefferson's expansionist policies, the Lewis and Clark expedition and the
Aaron Burr conspiracy. The narrative inscribes its own structural flaws into
the text. The speaker is unreliable and appears to be making it up as he
goes along. At times he is forced to admit the sheer implausibility of his own
tale with ironic asides: nearly half-way into the poem he concedes that things
have fallen 'a little too patly into the scheme / of things'. The historical events
to which the poem alludes are thus rendered suspect:
[Jefferson]
Has today received (1) a live gopher (z) a magpie (3) a piece of chequered skin
or hide and (4) a cipher that reads . . . 'A-R-T-I-C-H-O-K-E-S'.
This extract relates to the articles sent back to Jefferson by the Lewis and
Clark expedition. However, the veracity of Muldoon's account is put into
question if one refers back both to the actual invoice forwarded by the
explorers at Fort Mandan to the President and to subsequent letters by
Jefferson. Equally dubious is the encrypted letter sent to Jefferson. Although
the mathematician Robert Patterson developed a cipher based on the key-
word 'artichokes', the code was never used on the expedition. By including
carefully edited extracts from travel memoirs, letters and diaries, Muldoon
guides the reader along the path of intertextual detection: while the reader
is the ultimate arbiter of meaning, it is the poet who places the clues, help-
ing the reader to see how historical experience becomes mediated through
selective editing. According to Linda Hutcheon, such writing 'shows fiction
to be historically conditioned and history to be discursively structured': it
foregrounds 'the politics of human agency'.10 'Madoc - A Mystery' contin-
ually alerts the reader to a disjunction between official history and fictional
re-creation, not only by including obvious disruptive elements, but also by
tonal modulations and withholding information.
For Muldoon, there is a discernible tension between imaginative free play
and the ordered manipulation of the reader's textual experience. Rather than
opening up his poems to limitless readings, Muldoon subscribes to the notion
of limited connotation: 'I'm one of those old fogies who was brought up on
New Criticism and practical criticism; I believe that one of the writer's jobs

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is to reduce the number of possible readings of a text'. He 'argues for the


primacy of unknowing yet insists on almost total knowingness on the part
of poet as first reader'. In this regard, he cites Robert Frost as his exemplar,
admiring, as he says in an interview, 'his mischievous, sly, multi-layered
quality under the surface'.11 However, this is only half the story. Whilst
Muldoon resists pre-determination on a thematic level, in his form he often
seeks fixity. In the elegy for Mary Farl Powers, 'Incantata' (1994), one can
see how Muldoon's structure of quotations directs the reader's reception
of the poem. 'Eyes abrim' at his lover's determination to accept her death,
Muldoon alludes to Lucky's monologue in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for
Godot, presenting grief reduced to the despairing inarticulacy of Lucky's
'quaquaqua\ He refers also to the dumb speaking in James Joyce's Finnegans
Wake ('quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq!')
I crouch with Belaqua
and Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac-
ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the
'quaquaqua'
of that potato-mouth; that mouth as prim
and proper as it's full of self-opprobrium,
with its 'quaquaqua, with its 'Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq'.

Thematically, the speaker's anguish in the face of Powers's acceptance of her


pre-ordained fate is evident. Yet, paradoxically, in a text which adopts a rigid
rhyme scheme, Muldoon deliberately leads the reader to view this passage
as the poem's emotional centre, placed as it is at its mid-point.

II
Tom Paulin shares Muldoon's thematic preoccupation with history and pol-
itics, yet his pugnacious style as both poet and critic is, in some respects,
antithetical to the latter's teasing obliquity. Reviewers have been quick to
allude to Paulin's aggressive style and his reputation for verbal truculence.
This was firmly established when his third (and most celebrated) collection,
Liberty Tree, was published in 1983. In 'Desertmartin', the final stanza re-
ductively conflates two forms of what the speaker perceives to be political
extremism, namely Northern Irish Loyalism which has fostered 'a culture of
twigs and bird-shit / Waving a gaudy flag it loves and curses', and Islamic
fundamentalism's 'theology of rifle-butts and executions'. It may, however,
be misleading to argue that the cultural cliches expose the author as ill-
informed since the poem itself foregrounds the speaker's limited perspective:
whereas Hegel's owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, signifying that wisdom

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only comes after the event, Paulin has the owl driving in a rented car across
'the territory of the Law' in the present, a visitor at a remove from his en-
vironment. Nevertheless, the structure of oppositions established within the
text neatly contrasts a 'free strenuous spirit' with 'servile defiance'. This ac-
cords with the over-arching dialectic set up by the collection as a whole
between the radical, dissenting Presbyterian spirit of the United Irishmen
and the apparent diminishment of these ideals in contemporary Northern
Irish society. This is precisely summarised in the closing lines of 'Father of
History', where the United Irishmen appear 'like sweet yams buried deep,
these rebel minds / endure posterity without a monument, / their names a
covered sheugh, remnants, some brackish signs'.
Like Muldoon, Paulin abhors fixity, and a recurring motif in the collec-
tion is that of imprisonment, with the poet consistently registering a sense
of enclosure. In 'Trine', he rails against the 'patterned god'. In 'What Kind
of Formation are B Specials', he lives in 'a frozen state'. In 'From the Death
Cell: Iambes VHP, rewriting a text by Andre Chenier in the context of the
19 81 Republican Hunger Strike, the speaker accepts having to live 'dishon-
oured, in the shit' because, he says, 'it had to be'. And in 'Of Difference Does
It Make', a poem about Unionist misrule in Northern Ireland prior to the
imposition of direct rule by Westminster, we are presented with the image
of 'a mild and patient prisoner / pecking through granite with a teaspoon'.
Such antipathy towards Calvinist pre-determinism, rigidly linear historical
narratives and the Kafkaesque implacability of governmental institutions is
a direct continuation from his previous collection, The Strange Museum, in
which the past is regarded as 'an autocracy', 'somewhere costive and un-
changing'. In 'A Partial State', the territory is 'Intractable and northern', a
place where the prevailing atmosphere is one of disempowerment and dis-
illusionment: 'Stillness, without history; / until leviathan spouts, / bursting
through manhole covers'. The biblical 'Leviathan' is emblematic of the forces
that lurk beneath Northern Irish society and recurs in 'In the Lost Province',
a poem which conveys the apparently cyclical inevitability of conflict. The
speaker despairingly asks, 'Is it too early or late for change?' However, in
Liberty Tree, Paulin re-orients his conception of history; rather than viewing
it as deterministic, his poetry signals its contingent nature. Like Muldoon, he
collapses the distinctions between the objectivity of historical record and the
subjectivity of fictional narrative. In 'L'Envie de Commencement', history
as a narrative construct is foregrounded as the speaker pictures the histo-
rian before his text as a blank canvas, 'seeing a pure narrative before him'.
Similarly, in 'Martello', the speaker asks whether one can 'describe history'
and asks 'Isn't it a fiction that pretends to be fact / like A Journal of the
Plague Year}9

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Paulin's fervent engagement with issues affecting Northern Irish society


has established him as the foremost political poet of his generation; as he
argued in his preface to The Faber Book of Political Verse (1986), he does not
believe 'that poems exist in a timeless vacuum or a soundproof museum, and
that poets are gifted with an ability to hold themselves above history, rather
like skylarks or weather satellites'.12 In 'Purity', for example, the speaker
speculates that 'a maritime pastoral / Is the form best suited' to Belfast,
only to have this disallowed by the appearance of 'a crowded troopship'.
Commenting on the poem, he reiterates his disavowal of any crude distinc-
tion between the private and public realms, stating that 'what I'm agonizing
about is how the public life - which is cruel and involves seeing people as
statistics or mass aggregates - subsidizes certain people who are able to es-
cape it, to get beneath their duvets and supposedly relate to each other'; as
a poet, he rejects what he terms 'the cult of the intimate', arguing that 'the
privatization of life' involves a deplorable 'retreat from any commitment to
the public world'.13
A distinction needs to be made, however, between texts in which Paulin
usefully juxtaposes different historical contexts and incorporates enlighten-
ing intertexts, and those weaker poems which resemble cyclopic, ill-tempered
tirades. In Fivemiletown, his fourth and most challenging collection, the poet
offers an implicit indictment of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by the
British and Irish governments at Hillsborough, Co Down on 15 November
1985. Based on a speech by Harold McCusker, the then deputy leader of the
Official Unionist Party, and one included by Paulin, as editor, in his section
on 'Northern Irish Oratory' in the third volume of The Field Day Anthol-
ogy of Irish Writing, the poem displays a rare empathy with the solitary,
disregarded figure who has suddenly been forced to question not simply his
political affiliation, but also his identity:

All that Friday


there was no flag -
no Union Jack,
no tricolour -
on the governor's mansion.
Following the Agreement, what constitutes 'my own province' and 'my own
people' is left uncertain for the disaffected Unionist. Paulin registers the
speaker's deep, religious faith and compares his position with that of the
Three Hebrew Children from the Book of Daniel (Shadrach, Meshech and
Abednego), refusing to bow down before a foreign power.
In the introduction to his 1996 collection of essays, Writing to the Moment,
Paulin explains his deep fascination for writing which is 'instant, excited,

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spontaneous, concentrated', for journalistic texts that are 'provisional, off-


hand, spontaneous, risky in this volatile mindset', and for writing which
'seeks but never finds absolutely definitive judgments'.14 When applied to
poetry, such a style can risk appearing impetuous, unfinished and off-the-
cuff; yet this is Paulin's way of counteracting, both formally and themati-
cally, the strictures of order and determinism. In hisfifthcollection, Walking
a Line (1994), his lines acquire austere brevity, avoiding iambic pentame-
ter and punctuation; his lines of thought become less rigid. '51 Sans Souci
Park' hears 'a voice thrashing in the wilderness' and then effectively presents
his poetic manifesto (Paulin's italics): 'action's a solid bash I narrative a
straight line I try writing to the moment I as it wimples like a burn I baby ifs
NOW!3
By 'writing to the moment', his poetry becomes more immediate, fore-
grounding orality and the vernacular. In an interview with Tom Raphael,
the poet argued against viewing 'English' as a 'pure language'; for him, lan-
guage 'goes on, recreating itself, playing games, breaking down old structures
and forming new ones'; using the vernacular involves 'the total remaking of
everything, and that sense of the absolute present moment'.15 Indeed, coun-
tering the perceived inflexibilities of both English received pronunciation
and print culture, Paulin writes in his introduction to The Faber Book of
Vernacular Verse that 'the vernacular imagination distrusts print in the way
that most of us dislike legal documents. That imagination expresses itself
in speech and feels untrammeled by the monolithic simplicities of print, by
those formulaic monotonies which distort the spirit of the living language'.16
While in his previous collections he had liberally used Northern Irish dialect
words, slang and neologisms, it had been deemed counter-productive by the
critics, who argued that, far from revivifying and celebrating oral culture, it
was merely 'something of a self-conscious poetical gesture'.17 However, with
'The Wind Dog', the title poem of his collection published in 1999, Paulin
had found an appropriate poetic form: the cento. In an interview with Jane
Hardy he explains how he finally managed to produce this poem:

I began to write and got interested in the cento as a literary form through
Hazlitt and Eliot. A cento means a patchwork, and I found myself writing a
cento with different lines, or thoughts, coming in. It's a poetic form where you
take bits of other poems and put them together. The idea is that somehow, like
taking bits from elsewhere to make a quilt, you make your own thing of it.18
Paulin has recently written about Hazlitt's prose style, describing it as 'a
version of Milton's poetic centos'. So the function of the cento, is to pro-
vide old ideas with 'a redemptive life'; in Hazlitt's prose, there is 'a new
quickening spirit which melts down or decomposes quotations, sources, and

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subjects in order to recompose'.19 In his introduction to the recent Penguin


edition of Hazlitt's writings, Paulin expands upon this theme: 'If the critic is
an epic compiler of centos, a Cellini melting down prefabricated materials,
he is also an actor, someone who imaginatively participates in the works he
evaluates'.20 The writer who creates centos is not equated with the lowly job-
bing copyist; rather, he is a creative artist, one who all the while performing
the task of iteration is also carrying out one of evaluation.
If The Wind Dog' is a cento, then Robert Frost lies at the heart of its be-
wildering myriad of citations. Paulin has long regarded Frost as an exemplar,
but for very different reasons to Muldoon: 'His concept of writing', Paulin
explains to Eamonn Hughes, 'was that it should come out of vernacular
rhythms and trust in the speech around you. Rather than looking to received
pronunciation or to a language which exists in printed texts, writing should
look to that primitive, original orality, which any child is given from the
moment they try to talk'.21 Paulin imbeds two key quotations from Frost
into his text, each taken from the essays 'Sentence Sounds' and The Figure
a Poem Makes', both collected in James Scully's Modern Poets on Poetry:zz
'A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be
strung . . . The ear is the only true writer and the ear only true reader' (Frost
in Scully, 50 and 52). For Paulin, Frost's poetry is accessible, democratic and
non-elitist; it embraces vernacular rhythms and is to be apprehended by the
ear. Embracing this ars poetica, Paulin cites quotations from street ballads
as well as from texts by Joyce, John Clare and Thomas Hardy, each em-
phasising the variety of regional dialects. Crucially, however, this acts as a
reaffirmation of his beliefs, as he states in the poem, 'so let me trawl and list /
a couple or three sounds in my archive'.
Writing centos has, in some respects, become an artistic principle for
Paulin. By joining together citations and remembered quotations, he incor-
porates the writing styles of others in his own text, often offering either
a critique or analysis of the author in the process. For example, in The
Four', a prose text based on the Versailles Treaty negotiations from The
Invasion Handbook (2002), he creates an assemblage from sections taken
from John Maynard Keynes's The Economic Consequences of Peace, in-
serting occasional lines of his own to augment the vitriolic attack on the
policies dictated by the presiding heads of state (Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd
George). By adopting the cento form, Paulin not only succeeds in presenting
a condensed version of Keynes's treatise, he also deflects the earlier criticism
concerning his verbal truculence: not only are his arguments a matter of
ventriloquism, he presents the antithetical arguments in the very next poem,
'Mantoux', based on Etienne Mantoux's rejection of Keynesian economics
in The Carthaginian Peace.

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III
Medbh McGuckian is another poet who, in each of her seven collections to
date, composes centos; however, while both Muldoon and Paulin guide the
reader, wearing their knowledge on their sleeve, McGuckian hides hers in
the seams, usually avoiding the use of italics, quotation marks, footnotes and
other indicators that a text is being referred to. For this reason her texts have
baffled critics with their paratactic arrangement of metaphors and dislocated
syntax.
Typical of her style is the intriguingly titled 'Frost in Beaconsfield' from her
collection On Ballycastle Beach (1987), in which she enigmatically states,
'A voice beyond a door that cuts off / The words was my coverless book
to you, / Myself the price of it'. The key to her method of composition is
contained in a recent cryptic statement: 'I have a certain number of gathered
words (liked and chosen and interesting to me and maybe never used before)
that I try to mould into a coherent, readable argument that might paral-
lel what is going on deep in my subconscious or somewhere unreachable
by words'.23 However, far from being 'never used before', these words are
compiled by the poet from biographies, memoirs, essays and other literature
and subsequently used to construct poems in the form of centos. 'Frost in
Beaconsfield' borrows heavily from the letters collected in Robert Frost and
John Bartlett: The Record of a Friendship. The 'coverless book' refers to a
manuscript of A Boy's Will, Frost's first collection which wasfinalisedwhen
the poet was staying in Beaconsfield. Frost prepared this particular copy
himself, trimming the galley proofs and stitching the pages together, sending
them to Bartlett as a gift. In a letter of 1913, he wrote to Bartlett saying,
'About now you are in receipt of my coverless book. Now you are reading it
upside down in your excitement. What's the matter? You look pale. I see it
all as true to life as in melodrama... .'24 McGuckian's embedded quotations
from Frost's letter provide a crucial context for the poem: an author, having
just prepared his collection, is in need of praise, and sends it to his former
pupil, and McGuckian's poem too, shares the questioning about her own
poetry.25
Like Paulin's 'The Wind Dog', McGuckian's text expresses one of Frost's
theories of poetry. She cites from another letter of 1913, in which he argues:

The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door
that cuts off the words. . . . These sounds are summoned by the audible imag-
ination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably
indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the
posture proper to the sentence.26

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There is a problem here. McGuckian does not clearly indicate the context
in her own poem. To what extent does McGuckian lose authority, her role
and status as author, by appropriating another author's words? The phrase
is ambivalent: her self is certainly in the book (it is autobiographical), but
she is also giving up her self and using Frost as a touchstone and literary
exemplar. Her book is, therefore, 'coverless': her name does not appear as
author.
There is one vital way in which McGuckian's texts follow Frost: her words
are indeed 'voices behind a door that cuts off the words'. They strive towards
the irrational, or that which is not-English. In recent interviews she has con-
sistently emphasised her antipathy to English: 'I am more and more aware
of English as being a foreign medium'; 'I resist and I'm angry - we're always
angry, because every time we open our mouths we're slaves'. For McGuck-
ian, the psychological discord arising from her mother tongue is not a recent
phenomenon, as is evident from thoughts recorded in her 1968/69 diary:
'English is very sour upon the tongue . . . I keep finding fault with English
these days, like a mother with her child'. What is particularly noteworthy
is her desire to redress the situation: 'John says English here is sterile -
maybe I will inseminate it'. Her decolonisation of the mind does not take the
usual approach of actively appropriating English or foregrounding Hiberno-
English; instead her work deterritorialises the English language, subjecting it
to a radical displacement. Her deterritorialisation attempts to disrupt its
structures: 'I feel perhaps in poetry a meta-language where English and
Irish could meet might be possible, and disturbing the grammar or mess-
ing about like Hopkins is one method of achieving this'.27 But her poetry
is nothing like that of Hopkins. Her palimpsests do not bespeak an anxi-
ety of influence; they manifest a deliberate estrangement from the English
language.
Such a dislocation of the English language would lend credence to those
critics who claim that her work is both apolitical and irrational; however,
this would neglect the careful way in which she crafts her assemblages and
would minimise the very real politics in her work. McGuckian's poetry has
consistently sought to address the Troubles obliquely, as can be seen from
her quotation from Picasso for an epigraph to her 1994 collection Captain
Lavender: 'I have not painted the war . . . but I have no doubt that the war
is in . . . these paintings I have done'. Similarly, in the title poem of her 2001
collection, Drawing Ballerinas, she commemorates Ann Frances Owens, a
neighbour and schoolfellow who was killed in the Abercorn Cafe explosion
in 1972 by composing a cento from extracts taken from John Elderfield's
The Drawings of Henri Matisse:*8

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but the page stays light, the paper with ease, at ease,
possesses the entirety of the sheets they occupy.
(McGuckian)
They share an absolute sureness - a sense of having been drawn with ease, at
ease . . . The entirety of the sheets is addressed (p. 128) The design 'bleeds
over the whole page' and Hhe page stays light\ Matisse said.
(Elderfield, 74, 128 and 104; emphasis added)
The immediate context for these lines is the progression from Matisse's brief
experiment with Cubism (Madame Matisse) to the less 'disquieting' Plumed
Hat series. The artist is at ease with his medium and subject matter, and is
under no obligation to respond to social strife. Summarising the rationale
behind the poem, McGuckian (after Matisse) states that 'the pain and outrage
continue, and one still feels obliged to draw one's ballerinas against that
background'. 29
This stance regarding the poet's social responsibility is akin to that of
Muldoon's diasavowal of 'the notion of poetry as a moral force, offering
respite or retribution'. In an interview with John Brown he states that '[t]he
poems I've written about the political situation . . . tend to be oblique, and I
think properly so: they tend to look slightly further back at the society from
which the situation erupted, at why we are how we are now'. 3 ° In 'Visiting
Rainer Maria' from Marconi's Cottage (1991), McGuckian borrows from
Nadhezde Mandelstam's biography of her husband, the Russian poet Osip
Mandelstam, obliquely to parallel his position as a poet in a time of state
repression with her own. In 'The Disinterment' from Drawing Ballerinas,
she draws on a critical study of the Greek playwright Aristophanes by Carlo
Ferdinando Russo to establish an analogy between the treaty established
between Sparta and Athens (421 BC) and the precarious first IRA ceasefire
(1994). And in 'Manteo' from the same collection, she uses Angela Bourke's
book The Burning of Bridget Cleary (about a woman violently killed because
she had supposedly been abducted by the fairies) to counteract nineteenth-
century anti-Irish stereotypes.
Equally, McGuckian examines the roots of conflict, imaginatively recon-
structing the lives of important Irish figures. In 'The Truciler', for instance,
McGuckian engages with Irish civil war politics of the 1920s by fashioning
a collage of phrases taken from Tim Pat Coogan's biography of the Irish
political leader, Michael Collins.
The bullet cleared the briars
off the top of the ditch, drove
particles of his bone at a four

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miles per hour walk, to rejoin a road


like a swine with a tusk
which has grown round into the head.
Within minutes of that noontide
priceless manuscripts floated over
the city, releasing the scent
of partition, and the stray light
in the strait jacket of the Republic
paid out the head money of his soul.

Many of the 'Trucileers' as they were called were poorly disciplined. [. . .]


And McPeake cleaning the briars off of the top of the ditch [. . .] The bullet
apparently drives not only particles of bone but also an air pocket before
it [. . .] [T]he pair went back to Dublin at a 'four miles an hour walk' [. . .]
[P]riceless manuscripts . . . floated over the city [...] Firstly, the election, which
made Craig the Six Counties' first Prime Minister . . . had the more important
long-term result of definitely and unmistakably releasing the scent of Partition
into the Irish electoral air. . . . That', said he, 'is me, in the straitjacket of the
Republic'.^

Chronologically, the poem works backwards, beginning with a description


of the assassination in 1922 of Michael Collins, leader of the pro-Treaty
faction during the civil war and head of the Free State Army ('Trucileers').
We follow the bullet's trajectory as it passes inexorably through his head, its
speed linked to a different journey, a friendly, though perilous 'four miles an
hour walk' across Dublin with Liam Deasy, a leadingfigurein the Cork IRA,
the organisation which ultimately sealed his fate. Here, McGuckian intimates
its tragic nature: as the Volunteers' Director of Intelligence during the guerilla
insurgency of 1919-21, Collins trained those who would later oppose him
after the Treaty was signed with Lloyd George. The weapon used against the
British ('tusk') becomes self-defeating for Collins ('grown round inside his
own head'). McGuckian blurs cause and effect by conflating three distinct
elements which led up to (but were not a result of) Collins's death. In the first
place, she refers to an event on 30 June 1922, when surrendering anti-Treaty
forces destroyed irreplaceable manuscripts at the Public Records Office in
Dublin's Four Courts. Second, Sir James Craig was elected as the first Prime
Minister of the newly partitioned Northern Ireland. And third, McGuckian
alludes to the concept of 'external association' (in which Ireland remained in
the Commonwealth while independent in internal matters). Michael Collins
brought this plan to his negotiations with the British in 1921, but it failed
to keep him out of what the plan's author, and Collins's nemesis, Eamon de
Valera termed, 'the straitjacket of the Republic'. McGuckian's lines dwell on

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the political fall-out rather than their specific causes, establishing an apparent
tension between freedom and restriction: the limitations of 'strait]acket' and
'partition' are picked up later by the 'dwelling house' that 'is always/ locked'
and the 'towels/ framed all round the railings'. Parallel to this is the bullet
clearing the briars and the released scent, both as destructive as the enclosed
tusk 'which has grown round into the head'.
It is open to speculation as to whether McGuckian considers Collins to be a
tragic figure manipulated by De Valera into a no-win situation or as someone
who has made a Faustian pact and is to blame for the legacy of partition.
However, the speaker does address Collins in Churchill's derogatory terms:
Corner boy in excelsis, with towels
framed all round the railings,
Ireland is yours: take it.
(McGuckian)
Churchill, . . . was coming to view Collins as a'corner boy in excelsis' [. . .]
[W]ith towels framed all around the railings to show they were on pleasure
bent [. . .] 'Ireland is yours for the taking. Take it.'
(Coogan, 365, 219 and 320)

IV
Just as Medbh McGuckian's approach to identity politics can be described
as veiled ('This oblique trance is my natural /Way of speaking' ['Prie-Dieu']),
that of Ciaran Carson is equally indirect ('I tell it slant' [T]). Although his
two best-known collections, The Irish for No (1987) and Belfast Confetti
(1989), are packed with references to defensive architecture, surveillance
gadgetry and the armaments of both State and paramilitary warfare, his
poetic narratives refuse to make summary judgements. In 'Campaign' (origi-
nally entitled 'Wrong Side of the Fence'), we are told bluntly that 'They took
him to a waste-ground somewhere near the Horseshoe Bend, and told him /
What he was. They shot him nine times'. Similarly, in 'Cocktails', 'There
was talk of someone who was shot nine times and lived, and someone else /
Had the info. On the Romper Room. We were trying to remember the
facts'. Like David Crone's street-scene painting Shop Window (1980), or
Jack Pakenham's series of paintings entitled A Broken Sky (1995),32 both
of which feature Belfast viewed from multiple perspectives and differing
sightlines, there are rapid shifts of perspective between (and often within)
poems. In a realistic manner, at once documentary and psychological, the
poems convey the disorienting complexity of life during the Troubles, a time
when location and locution become key signifiers of identity. Carson's poetry

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recounts quotidian instances of interrogation when names, appearances and


personal histories are all assessed to ascertain religious (and political) affil-
iation. In 'Last Orders' the speaker and his companion are first scrutinised
by CCTV before passing through 'the steel mesh gate' that surrounds the
entrance to the bar. Appearances are deceiving, however, as we are told that
the speaker is a Catholic (Taig's written on my face') and, once inside, they
both order the beer Harp, failing to notice in time 'the Bushmills mirror'
(signifying a Protestant establishment). 'Night Out' replays the initial scene
of optical surveillance with the speaker forced to wait outside 'the galvinized
wire mesh gate', and when inside 'we get the once-over once again'.
Carson's poetry insists on repetition and circularity within the 'narrow
ground' of Ulster geography and history. The historian A.T.Q. Stewart uses
the phrase 'narrow ground', for his analysis of the Northern Irish conflict
as cyclical and inflexible. 'The Ulsterman carries the map of this religious
geography in his mind almost from birth', says Stewart, '[h]e knows which
villages, which roads and streets, are Catholic, or Protestant, or 'mixed'. It
not only tells him where he can, or cannot, wave an Irish tricolour or wear his
orange sash, but imposes on him a complex behaviour pattern and a special
way of looking at political problems'.33 'The Brain of Edward Carson' from
First Language (1993) is one poem which promulgates such a thesis, featuring
a map of Ulster, 'opened up, hexagonal and intricate, tectonic: / Its shifting
plates were clunked and welded into place by laws Masonic'. The text centres
on the 'riveted, internal gaze' and cognitive mapping of 'the uncrowned king
of Ulster', Edward Carson. The rhymes of the poem place emphasis on such
a rigid mindset ('static', 'cataleptic', 'Masonic', 'catatonic').
Like Muldoon and Paulin, Carson does not subscribe to a deterministic
outlook and uses cartographic discourse to foreground contingency. In at-
tempting to write 'the fractious epic that is Belfast' and to render the city
itself as a text, using 'alphabet bricks', recording how 'the storeyed houses
became emboldened by their hyphenated, skyward narrative',34 Carson uses
the crucial image of the map. Cartography in his work has many functions:
it marks out territory and records the location of peace-walls, security bar-
riers and republican/loyalist enclaves; it is an aide-memoire, facilitating an
ultimately doomed project of reclamation, retrieval and remembrance; it
instigates a reflection both on the inexactitude of memory and on the inter-
section between story and history. Carson realises what cultural geographers
have increasingly come to accept, that a map is not a text which presents
a simple mimetic representation of a territory. A map constructs the world
rather than simply reproducing it, since the knowledge which it embodies is
socially constructed. And a map can be redrawn in any number of ways and
can symbolise change rather than fixity.

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In 'Punctuation' the speaker is walking the streets and the 'frosty night
is jittering with lines and angles, invisible trajectories: Crackly, chalky dia-
grams in geometry, rubbed out the instant they're sketched'; the lines may be
familiar, yet the speaker feels lost. Similarly, the maps of 'Turn Again' are all
provisional. There is the blueprint for the bridge that was never built and an
inaccurate cartographic plan of the city depicting 'the bridge that collapsed'
and 'the streets that never existed'. The map's materiality itself is prone to
change ('The linen backing is falling apart'). What interests Carson about
cartographic representation is not verisimilitude. Rather, it is 'the idea that
a map has a secret, or that it is an essential part of a narrative, or that it is
in itself a narrative, a sidelong version of reality. It's interesting to me that a
map is only useful by how far it deviates from reality'.35 We see the world not
as it is, but as it is perceived. Belfast is consistently represented as fearful and
complex, frustrating the quest for meaning at every turn. In 'Smithfield' the
speaker glimpses 'a map of Belfast / In the ruins: obliterated streets, the faint
impression of a key. / Something many-toothed, elaborate, stirred briefly
in the labyrinth'. While the 'key' has the potential to unlock mysteries and
make the map intelligible, it is also as forbidding and 'many-toothed' as a
Minotaur.
Carson's emphasis on provisionality is compounded by the form of his
poetry. After his first collection, The New Estate, was published in 1976, he
became intensely self-critical, viewing poetry as a furtive pursuit, removed
and academic. He gained renewed self-confidence in his art from a number
of sources, each of which dictated the form of his later work. Initially, he
began to read the work of C.K. Williams who composed narrative poetry
using expansive long lines. But he was also influenced by the digressive,
convoluted oral narratives of Joseph Campbell from Mullaghbawn. His job
then as Arts Council Officer also took him around Ireland to study and
record traditional music, an activity which led him to see how '[t]he 8-bar
music unit of the reel - which can be further divided into smaller units, 2 or 4
or whatever - corresponds roughly to the length of, and stresses within, the
poetry line'.36 Employing the long line, his poetry adopts an associative logic
and becomes both conversational and metamorphic; eschewing closure, it
features multiple (often disjunctive) narratives, mixing personal anecdotes
with excerpts from ballads, literature and historical documentation. The
beginning of 'Dresden' (which opened The Irish For No in 1987) is typical
of this new style: 'Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother
Mule; / Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody's guess. I stayed there
once, / Or rather, I nearly stayed there once. But that's another story'. Time
frames overlap, stories mutate into one another and all are held together by a
complex structure. Commenting on the effect of Cathal McConnell's music,

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Carson states that '[o]ur knowledge of the past is changed each time we hear
it; our present time, imbued with yesterday, comes out with bent dimensions.
Slipping in and out of notes of time, we find our circles sometimes intersect
with others'.37 Likewise, his own use of the musical long line allows him
to convey place, history and identity as palimpsests, resistant to unitary
readings.
Representation for Carson becomes even more problematic since his first
language is Gaelic. 'La Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi\ the opening (love) poem from First
Language attempts to express the ineffable though synaesthesia, the mixing
of the senses:
I bhfaiteadh na mbeal
I bhfriotal na sul
Fascadh agus teannadh
Do dti nach raibh ann
Ach scath an scathain eadrainn,
Tocht i do chluais istigh.
(In the blink of a mouth, in the word of an eye, embraced and tightened,
until there was nothing there but the shadow of a shadow between us, I
reach into your ear.) Yet even here one witnesses the difficulty language has
in describing the interstitial or liminal. The poet lapses into silence, strug-
gling to describe the emotions evoked 'I gclapsholas domhain do phoige'
(by the twilight world of your kiss). His English poems describing Belfast
life become fragmented, straining to contain a veritable babble and hubbub.
'Sonnet' is parodic of the neatly constructed form it names, made up of four-
teen random, disjointed lines taken from overheard conversations,filmsand
advertisements. His suspicion of, and playful attitude towards, language be-
comes evident in 'Ark of the Covenant' in which he imitates Wallace Stevens's
'Sea Surface Full of Clouds', having each section as a variation of the other:
using synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus, Carson constructs four differing
narratives based on a single text.
All four poets under discussion have faced hostile criticism during their
respective careers. Muldoon has been charged with an elitist intellectualism.
Paulin has been castigated for his blunt directness. McGuckian's hermetic
verse has led to incomprehension and bafflement. And Carson levelled criti-
cism at himself for the costive nature of his early work. While one must con-
cede that interpreting their poetry involves difficulty for the reader (finding
the sources, comparing the quoting text with that from which it cites, trans-
lating the 'foreign' language), nevertheless each poet has found a form best
suited to tackling different aspects of identity politics. Muldoon's historio-
graphic metafictions allow him to interrogate the veracity and assumptions

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behind historical narratives. Paulin's poetic centos enable him to celebrate


oral culture. McGuckian's palimpsests facilitate a more oblique approach
to the Troubles. Carson's long lines and fragmented narratives, borrowing
sources as poetic material and competing voices, make possible a poetry
which disrupts the very idea of a single, unitary national story or identity.

NOTES
1 Paul Muldoon, To Ireland, I (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 35.
2 Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber,
1988), pp. 101,92.
3 Ciaran Carson, 'Escaped from the Massacre', Honest Ulsterman, 50 (Winter,
1975), p. l 8 3 -
4 Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).
5 Milosz cited by Heaney, Preface, The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, eds.
Richard Kearney and Mark Patrick Hederman (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe,
1983), p. i.
6 John Goodby, Irish poetry since 1950: from stillness into history (Manchester
University Press, 2000), p. 9.
7 Paul Muldoon, Poems, 1968-1998 (London: Faber and Faber, 2001).
8 Muldoon, The Point of Poetry', Princeton University Library Chronicle, 49.3
(Spring, 1998), p. 516.
9 Muldoon, 'Getting Round: Notes Towards an Ars Poetica", Essays in Criticism,
48, 2 (April, 1998), p. 127.
10 Linda Hutcheon, ' "The Pastime of Time Past": Fiction, History, and Historio-
graphic Metafiction', Genre 20.3-4 (Fall-Winter, 1987), p. 299; and Irony's Edge:
The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 11-12.
11 Lynn Keller, 'An Interview with Paul Muldoon', Contemporary Poetry, 35.1
(Spring, 1994), 13I; Muldoon, 'Getting Round', p. 127; Muldoon in John Brown,
In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from the North of Ireland (Clare: Salmon
Press, 2002), p. 188.
12 Paulin, 'Introduction', The Faber Book of Political Verse, ed. Paulin (London:
Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 17.
13 Paulin, interview by John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with
John Haffenden (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 164-5.
14 Paulin, 'Introduction', Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays, 1980-
1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. xii.
15 Paulin, interview by Tom Raphael, 'The Promised Land', Oxford Poetry 7.1
(1983), p. 9.
16 Paulin, 'Vernacular Verse', in Writing to the Moment, p. 260.
17 Kate Flint, 'Face to Face', The English Review 4.1 (September, 1993), p. 15.
18 Paulin, 'The Dust over a Battlefield', interview by Jane Hardy, Poetry Review 87.1
(Spring, 1997), P- 33-
19 Tom Paulin, The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitfs Radical Style (London:
Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 95.
20 Paulin, 'Introduction', William Hazlitt: The Fight and Other Writings (London:
Penguin, 2000), p. xii.

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SHANE MURPHY

21 Eamonn Hughes, 'Q&A with Tom Paulin', Irish Literary Supplement 7.2 (1991),
p. 31.
22 Quotations from Frost, 'Sentence Sounds', Modern Poets on Poetry, ed. James
Scully (London: Collins, 1966), are cited on the left of Paulin's text. See Paulin,
'The Wind Dog', The Wind Dog (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. 21-36.
23 McGuckian, interview by Brown, In the Chair, p. 176.
24 Margaret Bartlett Anderson, Robert Frost and John Bartlett: The Record of a
Friendship (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), p. 35.
25 In a letter to the author (15 September 1999), McGuckian reveals that the poem
was written for her cousin, a scientist living in Beaconsfield, who was trying to
understand her work.
26 Frost in Anderson, pp. 52-3.
27 Rand Brandes, 'Interview with Medbh McGuckian', Chattahoochee Review 16.3
(Spring, 1996), p. 60; John Hobbs, ' "My Words Are Traps": An Interview with
Medbh McGuckian', New Hibernia Review 2.1 (Spring, 1998), p. 114; McGuck-
ian, 'Rescuers and White Cloaks: Diary 1968-69', My Self, My Muse: Irish
Women Poets Reflect on Life and Art, ed. Patricia Boyle Haberstroh (Syracuse
University Press, 2001), p. 150; Brandes, p. 61.
28 John Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse (London: Thames and Hudson,
1984).
29 McGuckian, 'How Being Irish Has Influenced Me as a Writer', Wee Girls, ed.
Lizz Murphy (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1996), p. 201.
30 Muldoon, interview by Brown, In the Poet's Chair, p. 190.
31 Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: A Biography (London: Arrow, 1991), pp. 311,
420, 418, 138, 332, 212 and 231.
32 See David Crone, Paintings, 1963-1999, ed. S.B. Kennedy (Dublin: Four Courts
Press, 1999), p. 35;JackPakenham, A Broken Sky (Derry: Orchard Gallery, 1995).
33 A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground, 1977 (London: Faber and Faber, 1989),
p. 181.
34 Ciaran Carson, The Star Factory (London: Granta, 1997), p. 126.
35 Carson, interview by Frank Ormsby, Linen Hall Review (April, 1991), p. 5.
36 Carson, interview by Rand Brandes, Irish Review 8 (Spring, 1990), p. 82.
37 Carson, Last Night's Fun: A Book about Irish Traditional Music (London:
Jonathan Cape, 1996), p. 90.

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12
LUCY COLLINS

Performance and dissent: Irish poets in


the public sphere

The poetry of dissent, indeed the dissenting position in literature as a whole,


has a long and distinguished tradition in Ireland. For reasons of political and
personal sensitivity, writers have found themselves in, and often cultivated,
a marginalised, observing status. The presence of aesthetic and political ten-
sions can be linked closely to Ireland's continuing absorption of differing
influences and experiences: these can both conflict with and build upon ex-
isting ideas of tradition and continuity. The adversarial position adopted by
Irish writers earlier in this century focused on oppositional relations such
as those between Ireland and England or between individual freedoms and
the Catholic norms of the evolving state. Now violence, materialism and
social exclusion have become the focus of attention and with these forms
comes a complex matrix of affects neither easy to define nor to address. The
poets dealt with in this chapter - Brendan Kennelly, Paul Durcan, Rita Ann
Higgins and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill - are aware of the tensions inherent in
these issues and of the fact that they are never fully subject to artistic or per-
sonal control. Indeed it is this lack of control that heightens the risks taken by
these poets to allow their voices to be heard. All four poets are widely read,
in a culture where the critical attention to poetry still far exceeds popular
readership, and all the poets use vibrant humorous language and frequent
public performance to maintain the dissenting voice within contemporary
Irish poetry.
The notion of dissent itself foregrounds the issue of authorial position:
from what or from whom do these writers dissent? Is it from political norms,
or prevailing social values? The evolution undergone by Irish society in the
past half-century has some bearing on this question, for the recurring back-
drop to discussion of social change is the stereotypical model of de Valera's
Ireland: conservative, isolationist, dominated by the Church and its rigid
moral codes. Indeed it is the once close connection between the State and
Catholicism that is thought to underlie many of the difficulties with which
Irish society has sought to come to terms over recent decades. It now moves

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away from a period in which social ills are seen as sanctioned by the ma-
chinery of state, and towards one which accords global forces the shaping
power of change. Yet when considering literature within a particular cultural
framework - here an Irish one - it seems impossible to remove the specific
nature of that state and, more especially, its relationship with its citizens,
from consideration. This dynamic is a complex one since the perceptions of
the individual concerning political authority are notoriously changeable and
open to endless reinterpretation. The cultural force-field within which the
writer works makes palpable the tensions between historical and contempo-
rary understanding, as well as between fluctuating public opinion and slow-
moving political and legislative developments. It is clear then, that poets
adopting a dissenting position must often contend with ill-defined, and
scarcely remediable, areas of human experience.
The relationship between the private and the public assumes particular
importance here. These poets must negotiate their own personal position in
relation to society while also speaking for others - they do not represent an
entirely individual perspective but also a changing role within that society. If
the theme of change itself calls attention to ideas of tradition - so strong in
formulations of Irish literature - these poets must be aware of the burden of
that tradition while concertedly seeking fresh views, aiming to make poetry
speak to a wider audience. The conflict between experiencing the injustices
of society and rendering them objectively in art has always been a troubled
one. It accounted for the struggle marking Austin Clarke's satirical works as
he sought to represent the extremity of despair in disciplined forms. Thomas
Kinsella's Butcher's Dozen, uncharacteristic among his works for the out-
spoken nature of its political comment, was also criticised for its intemperate
stance and for its supposed aesthetic failure. As early as 1962 Sean O'Faolain
registered the 'writer's battle for honesty' in these terms: The danger of be-
coming embittered, or twisted, threatens creativity itself, and here we come
to the real battleground of contemporary Irish writing. For thefirsttime Irish
writers have to think themselves into personal release . . . We need to explore
Irish life with an objectivity never hitherto applied to it. . .* The combined
necessity of objective judgement and personal conviction means that the poet
occupies several positions at once: never simply the marginalised observer,
the writer's own identity and process of writing is implicated in the social
dynamic represented.
The scrutiny of critics often turns on the ability of the poet to sustain
the highest attention to form while rendering the immediate world in direct
and uncompromising terms. Yet in the context of performance this may be a
misplaced demand, as Richard Poirier suggests: 'Because performance is [...]
inevitably caught up in the social and political exigencies of the moment - the

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formal dimensions of an artist's particular medium might even be said to


impede the action of performance'.2 Thus while the relationship between
form and theme is an important one in poetry, it becomes necessary to adjust
our expectations of aesthetic achievement in this context. If the poem is to
challenge, especially at the level of performance, it must question as well as
utilise the demands of its genre. Indeed the kinds of interrogation attempted
by these writers may also strike at the heart of fixed attitudes to the role and
norms of poetic reception. If these poets are of their time in their attention
to the social and political nexus that they occupy, they also take pleasure in
unsettling established perceptions.
Performance is a key element in the formation of poetic identity for these
four writers. All give well-attended readings and, in the case of Brendan
Kennelly and Paul Durcan, their appearance on discussion programmes and
chat shows has greatly enhanced their public profile, as well as suggesting
that accessibility and contemporary relevance are popularising attributes.
This kind of exposure has also reinforced their identity as specifically Irish
poets, personally recognisable to their readership in a way that few British
or American poets could claim. Such visibility can emphasise the persona
of the poet at the expense of the work, however, and encourages a view
of Irish culture as more concerned to reinforce a literary ambience than to
read poems. The performative aspect of the work also has implications for
the immediacy - and perhaps even the brevity - of its impact, though many
performance poets state that they do not write with this specific context in
mind.3 In drawing attention to the voice and to the presence of the poet
within the work, a reading emphasises the directness and the topicality of
the form as well as making oblique connections to the oral tradition of the
poem in history. Yet in spite of the importance of performance in forging a
direct connection with the listener, the availability of the written text also
obliquely suggests the ways in which that moment of connection can be
transcended by the fixity of the written word. Even during the performance
then, the attuned listener will be evaluating the experience against that of
reading the text. Alternatively, an audience less familiar with the work may
be discouraged from an analytical response by the proximity between the
writer's persona and the poetic content, deferring such a development to a
time of private reading.
These complex levels of engagement signal the value of an intellectual
approach to the relationship between poem itself and its public reading, yet
to theorise the act of performance may be to diminish its power. Performance
poets, Paul Beasley argues, 'up-hold the sheer physicality of language [. . .]
which a communication model would de-materialize'.4 In the performance
situation involvement in the poetry becomes more important than judgement

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of it, even though a complex commentary on the society under scrutiny may
be in the process of being formed. Are the listeners part of that society or
also canny observers of it? The use of humour, irony and shock tactics in the
poetry has the potential to disrupt the comfortable position of the audience.
Yet the sheer familiarity of the performer may counteract this effect. It is
possible for the shocking utterance to become a parody of itself, internalised
by a willing audience who can become comfortable with the dissenting voice,
so long as it is kept within bounds.

Out of bounds: Brendan Kennelly


The enduring popularity of Brendan Kennelly's poetry is perhaps its most
striking feature, not least as his readership has grown considerably since
his transition from lyric to epic mode. Frequency of publication also keeps
his work firmly in the public arena, though now watched for more keenly
by committed readers than by poetry critics. His popular appeal owes as
much to the attitude and energy of the work as it does to its scope and style.
Cultural context also plays a heightened role in both the reception and cre-
ation of these poems: Kennelly's expression of his opinions in interviews and
conversation shows an inquiring, flexible mind full of incongruities and sur-
prises. These qualities are found also in his poetic voice and are responsible
for the engaging yet often disconcerting quality of his writing, especially in
the exuberant long sequences: Cromwell (1983), The Book of Judas (1991)
and Poetry My Arse (1995).
From his earliest work Kennelly has been attuned to the weaknesses and
cruelties inherent in human behaviour and has placed these decisively, even
relentlessly, in an Irish context. The characters and stories of his native Kerry
provided structure for the first collections of lyrics, rendering Kennelly's
childhood with immediacy yet keeping him rooted in a particularised world
that did not force him to extend the limits of his understanding or of his
art. Few of these early poems show any attempt at experimentation either
in thematic or technical terms, though at their most successful they create a
cumulative picture of the contradictory emotions, the fear and stubbornness,
of the human struggle. Critical consensus suggests that the prolific output
of these years encouraged Kennelly's tendency towards indiscriminate writ-
ing and his reluctance to edit his work. These judgements, based largely
on failures of technique, have frequently relegated Kennelly to the role of
minor poet and they remain difficult to elide. Nevertheless, Ake Persson, in
Betraying the Age: Social and Artistic Process in Brendan Kennelly's Work,
has argued for new criteria to be used in any assessment, suggesting that
the social function of the poetry must be at the forefront of interpretation.5

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Such a reading emphasises the dynamism of the work and its explicit en-
gagement with difficult and contentious topics rather than its limited formal
achievements.
Some acute and aggressive works from the early period specifically chal-
lenge an unthinking acceptance of received opinion. A poem such as 'Baby'
draws startling social commentary and the harsh realities of rural existence
together: it refers specifically to the 1984 Kerry Babies case 6 yet surprisingly
moves towards a celebration of human endurance:

I find it interesting to be dead.


I drift out here, released, looking down
At men and women passing judgement
In the streets of that moneymad little town.

There was a hope of love at the back of it all


And in spite of clever men making money
That small hope still survives.7

By choosing to give the dead baby a voice, Kennelly not only brings a vital -
even shocking - new perspective to a topical issue but makes the reader
think further about what it means to lack a voice, or to have others speak on
our behalf. In this poem as in a number of others, Kennelly's subversion of
established viewpoints implicitly extends far beyond his chosen subject, yet is
made the stronger by the particularity of the context. It seems, paradoxically,
that the poet's work needs this firm anchor in order to make its range clearly
felt.
Kennelly's desire to let the voiceless speak through his work is linked by
him to a conviction that poetry is a force for change, yet one that must
accommodate multiple - and often distinctly marginal - viewpoints within
its scope:

Eliot's line, 'the awful daring of a moment's surrender' has often come into
my head when I am trying to work on the notion that poetry is an attacking
force born of a state of conscious surrender. For me, this surrender is made
possible by listening to voices, letting them speak, especially if these voices are
of those who are outcasts in history and myth, reviled, damned, and not worth
a second thought.8

The idea of reclaiming these voices, not only from the present but from per-
sonal and collective memory, is important in Kennelly's continuing evocation
of the rural world and provides the momentum for the most significant of
his projects to date. Cromwell, published in 1983, has been seen as a turning
point in the poet's career, marking a decisive move towards an ambitious,

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historically focused work unique in its approach to Irish history. This is


an epic poem constructed from a series of sonnets, allowing this normally
distant form to be brought close to the reader and availing fully of the con-
sequent emotional range. The inclusive imagination of Buffun, the central
narrating figure, is the key to the meaning of this poem and to its measured
success: he 'could not endure the emptiness' and initiated a dialogue with
Cromwell who will later remind him - 'you invited me here. I am the guest
of your imagination, therefore have the grace to hear me out'.9 This act of
invitation must also be the reader's, though the going will be tough. The
strands of Kennelly's early storytelling impulse remain strong here; at times
made taut by the presence of raw experience - violence, religious ferocity,
humour; at times slackening under the numerous digressions that readers
have found distracting.
The opening poem 'A Host of Ghosts' begins: 'Night: the pits are every-
where,/! am slipping into the pit of my own voice,/Snares and traps in plenty
there' (Cromwell, i) warning that though the voice can liberate us from fixed
emotions, it can also misuse us, manipulate us. In slipping among the voice
of Cromwell himself (excerpts from letters and speeches are used directly
in places) and other characters and stories, Kennelly rejects fixed notions of
history and probes the psychology of the most reviled figure in Irish history.
To dissent from this inherited hatred is to call into question the emotional
responses of both individual and nation and to question assumptions con-
cerning recent events in the continuing story of British-Irish relations. The
digressions of the poem then, can be seen at this stage as part of the poet's
desire to render alternative ideas and positions fully. By using versions of the
sonnet form Kennelly encloses each idea firmly within its own boundaries,
yet in the grouping of poems we see how one expression finds continuity
in the next. 'A Language' emphasises the cultural and personal isolation of
language loss picked up again in the subsequent poems 'That Word' and
'What Use?':

I had a language once.


I was at home there.
Someone murdered it
Buried it somewhere.
I use different words now
Without skill, truly as I can.
A man without a language
Is half a man, if he's lucky.

For all the loquacious qualities of narrator and of poet, this collection con-
cerns the struggle to make the self understood amid the misrepresentations

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of history and the narrow-minded judgements of society. In this sense perfor-


mance itself becomes a dissenting act, a demand for the voice of the individual
to be heard against the assumptions of the majority. Ultimately though, even
the sense of personal identity comes under erasure, as the penultimate poem
suggests: 'When I consider what all this has made me/I marvel at the cata-
logue:/! am that prince of liars Xavier O'Grady,/I am Tom Gorman, dead in
the bog . . . ' (Cromwell, p. 145). To break down certainties of identity is also
to risk incoherence, both personal and poetic.
These risks are taken still further in The Book ofJudas (1991) to the point
where the meaning imparted by the experiment begins to be lost.10 Again
Kennelly picks an icon of hatred and explores the contemporary implications
of betrayal and greed. This work has the body at its centre - whether it is the
betrayed body of Christ or the self-destructive Judas, this visceral quality im-
bues almost all the poems with their omnipresent sexual concerns. In address-
ing a culture comparatively recently grown from sexual timidity, Kennelly
again places explicit expression against a background of stultifying Catholic
morality, but here excess almost destroys the power of the voice. The direct-
ness of the utterance is a rebuff to conservative attitudes towards religion, sex
and history as well as an attempt to render the realities of passion directly.
'[T]his Christian culture itself is a parody of what may once have been a pas-
sion', Kennelly writes in his preface to the poem, locating his reworking of the
Christian myth in a specifically Irish context.11 Imagining Judas out drink-
ing with the Church he asks, ' "What have we / In common?" ' ' "Nothing
that I can / See" smiled The Church. "That's where you're wrong" / I
replied. "How so?" inquired The Church. / I smiled "We both betrayed
an innocent man."' (Book of Judas, 141). The reckless, casual force that
energises the language of these poems also animates institutions, objects,
ideas: all emerge in dialogue and in action, so that Kennelly moves further
towards the dramatic in his development of themes. Rather than achieving
inclusiveness of form, all his epics strive, in some measure, towards what is
inevitably outside their boundaries, towards the rough sensual risk of real
experience. In this sense the distinction between performance of the poem
and performance in the poem can no longer be clearly drawn: Kennelly at-
tempts to replicate the directness of his encounter with an audience even in
the printed text.

Paul Durcan: 'relentless moralist'


Paul Durcan shares with Kennelly a strong emphasis on the performance of
his work and uses this to extend the interpretative reach of poetic texts that
are simultaneously personal and public. The ritual quality of his readings

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creates an almost hypnotic effect and accentuates the paradoxical role of


forms of exposure in the preservation of the intimacy of his work. Edna
Longley distinguishes between what she calls the 'priestly' roles of Durcan
and Kennelly, characterising the former as visionary and the latter secular.12
Certainly the openness of Kennelly's performances can be contrasted with
the incantatory and often self-mocking stance adopted by Durcan. Thus the
exploration of identity in which both poets participate is integral, in Durcan's
case especially, to the ambiguity of physical presence.
Within Durcan's texts themselves the fusion of the topical and the fantas-
tical has prompted critics to term his work surreal. While the poems prove
resistant to rational approaches, Derek Mahon has convincingly rejected the
surrealist reading in favour of the cubist, arguing that Durcan is 'transfixed
by the simultaneity of disparate experience, all sides of the question'.13 This
simultaneity of representation accounts for the prevalence of visual keys to
the work, both in critical approaches and explicitly in the later books Crazy
About Women (1991) and Give Me Your Hand (1994) both of which are
inspired by collections of paintings.14 This openness to all possibilities is also
a rejection of the singular perspective or fixed standpoint, and itself consti-
tutes a dissenting position in its unwillingness to accept the unifocal stance
demanded by society. Public performance also stakes a claim for multiplicity
within the single poem: on each occasion different interpretations may be
suggested. Yet in Durcan's case the visual emphasis could suggest contain-
ment - a drawing inward of the writing, a formal and thematic telescoping
of the reckless abandon with which Kennelly addresses similar topics. A per-
sonal note can often be caught in Durcan's work, most explicitly in poems
concerning his wife and later his father. Yet to read these as detailed reve-
lations is itself an illusion: instead we glimpse the shadow of the suffering
speaker, at times pathetic and self-pitying, yet transcending these through
near-heroic endurance.
Catholicism is an important target for Durcan's satire but, like Kennelly,
he is an insider to the extremes of belief and Durcan allows the linguistic
aspects of litany and invocation to permeate the form and style of his work,
most notably in his use of repetitive sentence structures. In this way he under-
mines the pieties of Irish society through a bizarre mimicry of their effects,
an aspect of his work that places it closer to Clarke in the astringency of
his satire than to any of Durcan's own contemporaries. His aim is perhaps
to unsettle rather than to shock, but he not only tackles issues of private
morality, of marriage and the family, of social and national pretensions di-
rectly, he also defamiliarises them for both narrator and reader by inserting
the perspective of a distant observer. In this double context of familiarity

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and strangeness Durcan addresses the question of what it is to be Irish,


with particular awareness of the split perspective between North and South.
However, he is more concerned with capturing the difficult negotiations of
the moment than with mapping the labyrinths of history. The atrocity com-
memorated in 'The Minibus Massacre: The Eve of the Epiphany' (1975) ls
reprised in 'Poem Not Beginning with a Line from Pindar' (1990).15 Ordinary
images - 'Sandwich boxes and flasks, / Decks of playing cards' - reappear
but his father's response to the killing is moved to the centre of the poem with
shocking effect.' "Teach the Protestants a lesson" ', he says, followed by the
professional' "The law is the law and the law must take its course" V 6 The
private and public roles of the man - at once judge and father - also reflect
the interaction between exterior and interior worlds.
Durcan's interweaving of personal and political relationships in his work is
used to weigh individual attitudes to actions made in the name of the nation.
In addressing the brutality of both sides of the conflict, he often chooses
similar events to suggest the relentless uniformity of violence, yet varies his
poetic strategies effectively: 'In Memory: The Miami Showband: Massacred
31 July 1975 I7 begins by quoting 'Beautiful are the feet of them that preach
the gospel of peace" and closes with the same image: 'You made music,
and that was all: You were realists/And beautiful were your feet',18 a strange
tenderness emerging in the contemplation of the sacred yet vulnerable nature
of the human body. 'Margaret Thatcher Joins IRA'19 expands its headline
title whimsically: 'At the navel of the rath/Waltzed Ruairi O Bradaigh/His
arms round Mrs Thatcher/In a sweet embrace'.20 Given the tonal range of
these works it can at times be difficult to detect whether Durcan is sceptical
of or receptive to the easy emotional response to violence and outrage, or
whether the setting of differing responses in close proximity to one another
is simply a means of creating the startling effects he seeks.
Though Ireland's tangled relationship with its peoples is often seen as
central among Durcan's preoccupations, the extent to which he confronts
both universal themes and other cultures underscores the need to estab-
lish a critique of Ireland within a broader framework. Collections such as
The Berlin Wall Cafe (1985) and Going Home to Russia (1987) allow both
personal and national interaction with ideas of the foreign in addition to
foregrounding cultures with significant legacies of historical division and
economic disparity, where dissent is essential for political growth. Going
Home to Russia has four parts, the last devoted entirely to Russia: its history,
its writers, the experience of visiting it and meeting its people. The title poem
charts the transition between cultures in ways which examine the meaning of
belonging.

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Goodbye to the penniless, homeless, trouserless politicians;


Goodbye to the pastoral liberals and the chic gombeens;
Goodbye to the gobberloos and the looderamauns;
Goodbye to the wide boys and their wider wives.

Copenhagen - the Baltic - Riga - Smolensk -


If there be a heaven, then this is what
It must feel like to be going down into heaven -
To be going home to Russia.21
The litany of Ireland's socio-political drawbacks enacts a relentless ground-
ing against which the lightness and freedom of the flight can be measured.
Throughout the poem geography is feminised but there is a knowing quality
in Durcan's use of this familiar trope: 'the pilot sounds like a man/Who has
chosen to make love instead of to rape'. Also implicit throughout is the pre-
carious relationship between the speaker and the land to which he travels.
The exploration of identities is pursued through different experiences of
place and culture and within an overtly personal framework: Russia is ex-
pressed in sensual description and apparently through a sexual relationship.
These ambiguities displace confusions of identity and belonging that Durcan
himself suffers, being intimately bound to, yet bitterly critical of, the country
of his birth.
In the poems charting the failure of his marriage, as well as those in the col-
lection Daddy, Daddy (1990), Durcan comes closest to articulating a clear
sense of self, yet even here his wife and father acquire iconic status as he
seeks new perspectives on each relationship. His poems concerning women
have always attracted notice but his continual revisiting of his marriage has
been seen variously as a genuine attempt to empathise with his wife's feel-
ings and, in Edna Longley's view, as potentially exploitative. Similarly, she
argues, '[i]n poems such as 'Theresa's Bar' or 'Fat Molly', a sensuous, gener-
ous, permissive mother/lover may simply invert more austere representations
of Cathleen Ni Houlihan'.22 Certainly the self-effacing nature of the poet's
persona in many of these works is double-edged: it proclaims the speaker
as flawed, even helpless, yet in doing so it potentially undermines the gen-
erosity of his perspective as the erasure of the self results in the elimination
of plausible subjective judgement. Elsewhere these perceived incongruities
mark Durcan's resistance to clearly defined relationships and to the social
norms keeping them in place. 'At the Funeral of the Marriage' evokes the
life-in-death renewal of sexuality at the very moment that the speaker's wife
becomes a stranger to him. Likewise, a poem such as 'Crinkle, near Birr'
(1990) begins, 'Daddy and I were lovers/From the beginning, and when I was
six/We got married in the church of Crinkle, near Birr'. Though portraying

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the intimate estrangement of the father-son relationship in a startling way,


the poet cannot - and does not seek to - transcend the imbalance of power
between them.
Like Kennelly, Durcan uses humour to draw attention to the social realities
of Ireland but he is more measured in his approach: many of his poems take
an apparently absurd premise and develop it to a telling extreme, a process
which contributes to the dream-like quality to be found in much of his work.
Representation of the ordinary world is overlaid with shifting, idiosyncratic
visions of life, as though the process of writing itself draws the raw material
for the poem towards a state of flux. The acute eye for political hypocrisy and
social distortion is balanced by an ability to picture the world transformed by
a belief in the possibility of goodness amid the shortfalls of self and society.
Eamon Grennan writes: 'Although he has been called a great comedian,
he is in fact a relentless - and relentlessly buoyant - moralist: weird as its
projections are, the map he makes of the world is a moral map, his tendencies
as a poet instinctively Utopian'.23 The Utopian drive of Durcan's poetry is in
fact its most subversive quality, since it adds complex aspiration to the comic
deflation of both private emotion and shared experience. The apparent ease
with which this amusement is generated belies the studied centrality of the
speaker's voice, on paper and in performance, yet it is this unifying feature
that both attunes us to the nature of Durcan's humour and draws attention
to its darker elements.

Rita Ann Higgins: 'the one with the fancy words'


The subversive nature of Durcan's poetic achievement emerges in another
writer of growing significance, Rita Ann Higgins. Higgins chooses a par-
ticular stratum of society for her focus: working-class, more specifically fe-
male working-class, experience is her chief concern. Yet she also allows the
mores of society at large to inflect her work. The relationship between the
individual and the community here can be read on two levels. The poet
herself speaks out of the situation she depicts and seeks to align her form
and language with the characters and situations in her poems. Thus the act
of writing itself becomes entangled with more obvious social themes. The
troubling power dynamic between the working-class woman and the sys-
tem within which she must operate is mediated through language that often
exemplifies the pressures brought to bear on the individual 'Away from/ ten-
ants' associations/rent man's/ poor man's/light bills/heavy bills'.24 Women
battle against bureaucracy in Higgins's poems as she refuses to grant them a
symbolic role, ruthlessly grounding them instead in the mechanics of living
itself.

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Yet just as Durcan situates himself as the mock-heroic poet, suffering the
vagaries of emotional and social upheaval, so Higgins too must acknowledge
the role of poet within her own creations. If language is power then the place
of poetic language in this human struggle demands analysis. 'Poetry Doesn't
Pay' from Goddess on the Mervue Bus (1986) sets ideas of aesthetic worth -
'Your poems, you know,/you've really got something there' - against basic
monetary need when the rent man appears. The refusal to accept poetry
as an item of worth is not only the act of the man, but of society at
large which simultaneously affirms and denies the special power of words -
'After all/you're the poet/girlie missus/the one with/the fancy words' ('Space
Invader', Sunny Side Plucked, 103).25 In 'Poetry Doesn't Pay' this slippage
between material and aesthetic worlds is a complex one:

Tm from the Corporation,


what do we know or care about poesy,
much less grand amnostic dead aunts.'
'But people keep telling me.'
They lie.'
'If you don't have fourteen pounds
and ten pence, you have nothing
but the light of the penurious moon.'

It is the man from the Corporation who uses the archaism 'poesy' and who
consigns the defaulting speaker to live by 'the light of the penurious moon'
and he has the last word. Poetic language is here used to render poetry pow-
erless in the material world yet simultaneously, by a cruel irony, to impose
its own expression as reality. The worlds of poetry and of utility seem un-
bridgeable, except that they have both been transformed into the text we
read: the poem itself, now safe in respectable and commodified book form,
can be seen as an index of the poet's success, a sign that, at some level, poetry
does pay.
Here, as elsewhere, the demotic vein of Higgins's work opens itself out to a
world of improbabilities, as the 'fancy words' articulate the imagined in place
of the actual. Somewhat in the manner of Durcan, language itself becomes a
means of revealing and transcending material and emotional poverty. These
liberating acts of imagination occur for the speaker rather than for her char-
acters and this inevitably restates the circumscribed role of the verbal - the
butcher in 'The German for Stomach': 'wanted to shout/Lapis Lazuli, Lapis
Lazuli,/but instead he said,//'You wouldn't put a dog out in it'(Sunny Side
Plucked, 25). Language becomes both a transformative and disruptive force,
yet so often its power is never seized. Often the constraints of personal and

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social relationships are to blame for these missed opportunities. In 'The


Sentence' Chatterina's husband is condemned to the vocal margins: 'his
phrases had short back and sides,/his verbs were anorexic/his nouns were
Hail Holy Queens/He mouthed the tight-rope of caution'.26 Only when his
wife is rendered inarticulate can he finish either sentence.
This knowing position is one that Higgins often explores. At times it is
situated within a self-consciously literary frame - participation in the world
of poetry readings and academic conferences generates its own humour and
permits the disparity between the world of the poem and of its reception
to be highlighted. Public readings often find Higgins addressing the issue of
performance itself and in doing so both intensifying the comic possibilities of
her work and hinting at the potential duplicity of words. In 'Remapping the
Borders' the relationship between language and intention is subtly probed.
Revelation is simultaneously denied and affirmed when the poet is asked,
after the dance:

'Could you see my stocking belt


as I did the swing?' - 'Me, thigh, knee, no
I saw nothing
I saw no knee
no luscious thigh
no slither belt,
with lace embroidered border
that was hardly a border at all.'

That this description is further embellished when the speaker dwells on it


later raises the potential of language, of the act of representation itself, to
shape perception. The reader is exposed to the private awareness of the
speaker that is never made public within the limits of the poem itself. This
sensibility is separated from that of the dancing woman in a way which high-
lights the power of language to limit, rather than to reinforce, connection.
Both Durcan and Kennelly have produced sustained portrayals of women
throughout their poetry. Higgins creates her female figures with an acutely
observant eye yet withholds enough to allow uncertainty concerning the
relation between the particular and the general, thus her individual women
can appear to be at once representative of their environment and standing
alone within it. The foregrounding of the woman is similar to Higgins's
poetic technique as a whole, the way in which she draws the particular into
sharp relief while rendering the complex matrix of interrelationships vital
to an understanding of her poetic world - 'Tommy's Wife', depleted from
youth and freedom to anger and bitterness in the space of twenty-two lines;
'Mona' in the poem of the same name and Philomena from 'Philomena's

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Revenge' locked inside private worlds of fear and anger. In this confrontation
with the surfaces of marital and social life Higgins releases the individual to
direct expression and it is the vigour and humour of her form and language
that expresses her dissent from social appearances most directly. Durcan has
commented on 'the unique colour of humour and [...] unique clarity' of her
work and it is this clarity, this outspokenness, that makes her position as a
woman poet especially important.
Debates concerning the role of the woman poet are lengthy and ongoing
but the difficulties of moving towards a subject position in language
inevitably raise questions relating to the woman poet and her self-
representation in art. Catriona Clutterbuck, in 'Gender and Self-
Representation in Irish Poetry: The Critical Debate'27 rightly points out that
the issue of self-representation is one which must move beyond the specifi-
cally personal to analyse more critically the intersection between private and
public realms. This negotiation has proved central to any examination of the
dissenting position of the poet in contemporary Irish society, as it prioritises
the relationship between the individual creative act and the social structures
within which it is articulated. Just as the issue of performance draws atten-
tion to the role of author, it also highlights the process of writing (and that
of reading) as a potentially disruptive one.

Remapping the borders? Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill


Tensions between margin and centre assert themselves even more vigorously
in the debate on the role of the Irish language in contemporary literature
in Ireland. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's energetic poems are not only among the
most important in the Irish language this century but contribute significantly
to the discourse surrounding writing in that tradition. The issue of language
here moves beyond formal and tonal variety into the realm of cultural pol-
itics. The mediation between English and Gaelic literary forms not only
reflects the complex diversity of these two positions but often explicitly ex-
amines the linguistic and formal negotiations central to their co-existence in
contemporary Ireland. In spite of its potential for the unification of cultures,
translation is a process suggestive of loss; everywhere in the newly created
text is the spectre of missing language; in the words of Louis de Paor, 'From
the beginning [. . .] translation from Irish to English is as much an act of
obliteration and annihilation as it is one of discovery and exchange'.28
Ni Dhomhnaill herself has commented on both the benefits and difficulties
of her native language often in connection with the role of the woman poet
in contemporary (and ancient) Ireland. She sees the Irish language as a way
of recovering the female voice from a poetic tradition which is largely male,

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and her position has contributed to the accelerated interest in contemporary


women's poetry in Ireland: 'Lots of women's poetry has so much to reclaim;
there's so much psychic land, a whole continent, a whole Atlantis under
the water to reclaim'.29 Unsurprisingly this act is important for a poet like
Ni Dhomhnaill, who is aware that there is both daring and attentiveness
required to sustain Gaelic poetic forms. Yet her willingness to allow her work
to be freely translated by other poets has disturbed those who argue that this
subverts the original act of linguistic independence asserted by the decision
to write in Irish. Nevertheless, Ni Dhomhnaill insists on 'the need for Irish
to exist in its own right, and if you don't understand it, well tough'.30 The
ambiguous role of the translated poet is often reflected in Ni Dhomhnaill's
own attitude:
I am so constantly plagued by the seeming arbitrariness of so much that finally
finds its way onto the page, and the compromises and accommodations neces-
sary in even getting it that far, that I suppose it does cause me to have a pretty
"laissez-faire" attitude to subsequent translations of it. Mind you,... I have al-
ways put my foot down when it was a question of absolute mistranslation .. .3I
Caught, it seems, in a matrix of conflicts and tensions, Ni Dhomhnaill views
issues of language and of translation as an extension of the essential strug-
gle to create. The sense of precursors - both in terms of tradition and in
relation to the changes in an individual text - is a strong one for her and
she paradoxically draws attention to her linguistic heritage through the very
originality of her art. The important continuities which her work emphasises
never imply stasis though: Ni Dhomhnaill's poetic form mutates in the act of
translation and takes on the structure of the new language as stanzas reshape
and line-lengths accommodate new speech rhythms. Much of this originality
lies in the positioning of her work on the border between Irish and English
and between ancient and modern. It is the versatility and deftness of her
negotiation of these boundaries that makes her work both transformative of
cultural norms and challenging for the individual reader.
The resistance that Ni Dhomhnaill mounts to those with fixed views of his-
tory, language and social roles is concerted and she recognises these as pow-
erful forces, resisting easy containment: 'Seo radachur nuicleach na Staire/ni
folair' ('It's the radioactive rain /Of History') she writes in 'Plutoiniam'
('Plutonium'), 'Eirionn se anios I gconai/is de shior/6n nduibheagan do-
aitheanta/ata istigh ionainn' (Tt rises up always/Out of the ground/From
underworld caves/Within us:') (trans. Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, 1999).32
Radioactivity, potentially both damaging and curative, is incorporated in the
cyclical processes of nature: for Ni Dhomhnaill it is the organic limitations
and prejudices of both individual and nation that most need challenging.

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Ni Dhomhnaill frequently engages with mythic material in her desire to


disrupt received versions of Ireland's past and to rethink the relationship be-
tween ancient and contemporary values. It also allows her to acknowledge
the emotional power and human resonances of mythic story and character.
This kind of rewriting is of course a subversive act, especially in the con-
text of mythology as a vehicle for the perpetuation of national ideals and
gender imbalances. If the revolution of woman's position in Irish society
has placed male certainties under considerable strain, it has also necessi-
tated a re-examination of the nature and emphasis of mythic representation.
Ni Dhomhnaill readily uses myth in dialogic form, exploring a range of
voices and positions through dramatic presentation. This performative as-
pect within her work is framed in many readings by the interweaving of
original Irish and translated text rarely presenting a single voice or subject
position. Ni Dhomhnaill's performances allow listeners to absorb both lan-
guages, though they may understand only one of them, and to consider the
significance of the shape and sound of the poems, as well as of their mean-
ing. The emphasis on the voice in this poet's work both connects to and
examines the place of the oral tradition in Irish letters, and her readings
likewise reinforce the energy of this tradition while also tracing significant
changes within it. These alterations occur on several levels: for the audience
fluctuating attitudes towards the use of the Irish language may impede the
fullest engagement with the work presented; in the case of individual poems,
Ni Dhomhnaill often specifically addresses the vigorous, if incongruous, en-
counter between ancient and contemporary worlds - she allows modern
vocabulary and cadence to enter her poems naturally, enlivening her subject
matter with witty and irreverent touches.
In this poetry we observe not only the discrepancies between male-
authored tradition and its female articulation but also the gaps between
what woman speaks and what she instinctively feels, between her outward
behaviour and inward convictions. Where Higgins uses the wry humour and
blunt statement of social observation, Ni Dhomhnaill chooses to explore
the female psyche and challenges simplified interpretations of power, both
individual and cultural. By introducing these complexities Ni Dhomhnaill
places particular demands on the reader and encourages an interrogation of
established mythic representations. Her women are strong and the mythic
precursors that she draws upon - The Great Queen, Mor and Badb are
among them - emphasise this dimension. Yet even thesefiguresare reflective
as well as assertive and are often confused by their own power. The acts of
self-transformation or shapechanging exemplify the power and uncertainty
of their role: one of these powerful females, the Morrigan, when rejected as
a young woman by Cuchulainn, turned herself into an eel, a wolf, a heifer,

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attacking him with each shape change.33 Ni Dhomhnaill's Great Queen,


from the poem 'Agallamh na Mor-Riona le Cu Chulainn' ('The Great Queen
Speaks Cu Chulainn Listens'), articulates a similar intention:

Tiocfad aniar aduaidh ort. I will creep up on you


Bead ag feitheamh ag an ath leat. will await you at the ford
Raghad i riocht faolchon glaise I'll be a grey wolf
i ndiaidh na dtainte who'll drive the herds
is tiomainseadh ort iad. to stampede you
Raghad i riocht eascon I'll be an eel
faoi do chosa to trip you
is bainfidh metruip asat. I will be a polly cow
Raghad i riocht samhaisce maoile at the herd's head -
i gceann na mbeithioch hard for God even
chun gur diachair Dia dhuit to save you from our hooves.34
teacht slan onar gcosaibh.

The creaturely transformations which we may observe in Ni Dhomhnaill's


work draw attention to the power that surrounds the body in mythologi-
cal representation. This power can also be traced in the erotic dimension of
Ni Dhomhnaill's art which is especially resonant in its creation of new free-
doms of expression for women. Her 'Feis' ('Carnival') sets love for a married
man within forms of language resonant of mythic narrative: 'Leagaim sios
tri bhrat id fhianaise:/brat deora,/brat allais,/brat fola.' ('I lay down three
robes before you:/a mantle of tears,/a coat of sweat,/a gown of blood.') 35
Elsewhere she permits her speakers direct expression of sexual desire: 'Ach
nuair a chuimhnim/ar do phogsa/critheann mo chromain/is imionn/a bhfuil
eatarthu/ina lacht.' ('when I recall/your kiss/I shake, and all/that lies/between
my hips/liquifies/to milk') (Rogha Ddnta, 39) as Higgins also does, though
with less sensual immediacy - 'I yearn/for the fullness/of your tongue' (Sunny
Side Plucked, 109). That Ni Dhomhnaill also depicts the happy contempla-
tion of adultery and the joys of casual pleasure ensures that she removes her
women from the limitations of social laws and stakes a claim not only for
individual verbal expression but for a freedom of the body that transcends
particular social conditions. Pleasure is to be found both in the moment of
sexual fulfilment and the act of personal liberation and it is through the
combination of these forces that the poet seizes her power. Absent is the
fumbling eroticism of Kennelly's work, where the sexual encounter so often
falls short of both pleasure and meaning, and while Higgins usually positions
the erotic as at best a form of alleviation, at worst a kind of entrapment, for
Ni Dhomhnaill it is a form of articulation akin to words and therefore finds
easy expression within her creative ambit.

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The undeniable presence of the body within this sexual dynamic has an
impact on the relationship between private and public which is significantly
mediated through the act of performance. To present the private act for
public appraisal is at once to transgress this boundary and to remind the
listener of its existence. For these poets sexuality also asserts the primacy
of individual experience over social control thus expressing thematically the
spirit of liberation so prominent in the formal strategies of many of the
poems. While remaining conscious of the power of tradition, all four poets
recognise the need to break new ground through questioning the injustices
and hypocrisies of public life and they continue to enliven the Irish poetry
scene with witty and surprising work. All thrive by adopting an oppositional
stance, by asserting a marginal perspective - their own and that of others -
at the expense of a safe, accepted position and by taking creative risks to
achieve the most direct engagement with reader and listener.

NOTES
1 Sean O'Faolain, quoted in Augustine Martin, Bearing Witness: Essays on Anglo-
Irish Literature Anthony Roche (ed.), (Dublin: UCD Press, 1996), p. 94.
2 Quoted in Henry Sayre, 'Performance' in F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin (eds.),
Critical Terms for Literary Study (University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 98.
3 A number of poets whose readings are especially acclaimed have expressed unease
concerning the distinction between the terms 'poet' and 'performance poet' as they
see the writing processes of each as essentially the same, even if some poems may be
enhanced in the performance context. See Stephen Wade and Paul Munden (eds.),
Reading the Applause: Reflections on Performance Poetry by Various Artists (York:
Talking Shop, 1999).
4 Paul Beasley, 'Performance Poetry or Sub Verse' in Reading the Applause, p. 49.
5 Ake Persson, Betraying the Age: Social and Artistic Process in Brendan Kennelly's
Work (Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2000).
6 In April 1984 a twenty-four-year-old woman from Kerry, Joanne Hayes, concealed
the birth and death of her baby, the result of her relationship with a married man.
After the discovery of the stabbed remains of a baby in Cahirciveen on April 14th,
Hayes confessed to murder. When her own baby's body was discovered in May
(assumed to have died from deliberate neglect) the police suggested that she had
given birth to twins by two different fathers but the scientific impossibility of this
caused the murder charge to be dropped. A public tribunal into the way in which
the police had conducted the case did not lead to any action being taken against
them. See Nell McCafferty, A Woman to Blame: The Kerry Babies Case (Dublin:
Attic Press, 1985).
7 Brendan Kennelly, Selected Poems (Dublin: Kerrymount, 1985), p. 215.
8 Brendan Kennelly, 'Voices' in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry W.N.
Herbert and M. Hollis (eds.), (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2000), p. 213.
9 Brendan Kennelly, 'Measures' in Cromwell (Dublin: Beaver Row Press, 1983), vii.

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10 The Book of Judas has been criticised by reviewers for its unwieldy length. In
April 2002, Bloodaxe Books published The Little Book of Judas, a much-reduced
selection of the original poems.
11 Brendan Kennelly, The Book of Judas (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991), p. 11.
12 Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland
(Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1994), p. 218.
13 Derek Mahon, Journalism (Meath: Gallery Press, 1996), p. 116.
14 Crazy about Women (Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1991) is a collection
of poems written to coincide with an exhibition of the same name in the National
Gallery of Ireland. Durcan followed this with Give Me Your Hand (London:
Macmillan, 1994), which selects work from the National Gallery of Great Britain.
15 On January 5, 1976 at Kingsmills, Co. Armagh the Republican Action Force
stopped a minibus bringing workers home. Ten Protestants were killed; all were
civilians.
16 Paul Durcan, Daddy Daddy (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1990), p. 140.
17 In 1975 the UVF, a Protestant terrorist group, staged a fake roadblock to am-
bush an Irish showband returning home from a concert in Belfast. The terrorists
planned to load a bomb onto the minibus, so that it would appear to have been
transported by the band themselves, but the bomb exploded prematurely killing
two UVF men. The others panicked and shot dead three band members.
18 Paul Durcan, A Snail in My Prime: New and Selected Poems (London: Harvill,
1993)-
19 The Selected Paul Durcan, ed. Edna Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1982).
20 Ruairi O Bradaigh, one of the founders of the Provisional IRA and President of
Provisional Sinn Fein was replaced in that role by Gerry Adams shortly after Sinn
Fein declared a cessation of hostilities against Crown forces in February 1975. In
1986 he was to leave to form Republican Sinn Fein, fearing that Adams would
abandon claims to a 32-county Ireland in favour of constitutional politics.
21 Paul Durcan, Going Home to Russia (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987), pp. 66-7.
22 Longley, The Living Stream, p. 216.
23 Eamon Grennan, Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the Twentieth Century
(Nebraska: Creighton University Press, 1999), p. 316.
24 Rita Ann Higgins, Sunny Side Plucked: New and Selected Poems (Newcastle:
Bloodaxe Books, 1996), p. 34.
25 Moynagh Sullivan explores the complex relationship between symbolic and po-
litical power through the issues of poetic authority raised in Higgins's poetry in
'Assertive Subversions: Comedy in the Work of Julie O'Callaghan and Rita Ann
Higgins' in Verse 16, 2, pp. 83-6.
26 Rita Ann Higgins, An Awful Racket (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2001), p. 51.
27 Catriona Clutterbuck, 'Gender and Self-Representation in Irish Poetry: The
Critical Debate', Bulldn 4, 1 (Autumn 1998), pp. 43-58.
28 Louis De Paor, 'Disappearing Language: translations from the Irish', Poetry
Ireland Review 51 (Autumn 1996), p. 61.
29 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, 'The Hidden Ireland: Women's Inheritance' in Theo
Dorgan (ed.), Irish Poetry Since Kavanagh (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996),
p. 115.
30 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, 'Traductio ad Absurdum', Krino 14 (Winter, 1993), p. 50.

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31 Kaarina Hollo. 'Acts of Translation: An Interview with Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill',


Edinburgh Review 99 (Spring 1998), pp. 106-7.
32 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, The Water Horse, Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni
Chuilleanain (trans.) (Meath: Gallery Press, 1999), pp. 66-7.
33 'On one occasion, when Cu Chulainn was preparing himself for battle she [the
Morrigan] appeared to him as a beautiful young seductress. He spurned her im-
patiently [...] and, in her fury, she pitted herself against him in the form of an eel,
a wolf and a hornless heifer'. Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses (London: British
Museum Press, 1995), p. 44.
34 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Selected Poems/Rogha Ddnta, with translations by
Michael Hartnett (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1988), pp. 117-19.
35 Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, The Astrakhan Cloak, Paul Muldoon (trans.) (Loughcrew:
Gallery Press, 1992), pp. 14-15.

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13
ROBERT FAGGEN

Irish poets and the world

The global reputation of the Irish poetry world can be attributed to many
things including, at the risk of sounding too uncritical, its great variety and
quality. The sociology and politics of the reception of Irish poetry, particu-
larly in the United States, has been the subject of various levels of critical
speculation. Critics have mapped the influences of the literatures of many na-
tions on a range of contemporary Irish poets.1 This chapter will explore the
ways some contemporary Irish poets have reached beyond Ireland to imag-
ine and define their poetic practice. Irish poets have been greatly interested in
the achievements of American, Eastern European, French and Greek poets,
from Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Frost and Lowell to Herbert, Milosz
and Mandelstam, to Nerval, Cavafy and Seferis. The hold these writers and
others have for a number of contemporary Irish poets - Boland, Heaney,
Mahon, Kinsella, Muldoon - springs from a desire to establish human iden-
tity out of the tensions, debates and violence about national traditions and
national identity.
Irish poets have had a particularly strong reception in the United States.
There is, of course, the basic fact of sharing something like a common lan-
guage as well as the moderate success of such anthologisers as Thomas
Kinsella and Patrick Crotty in making Irish-language poetry available in
English. But Irish literature holds a special place in the American imagi-
nation - and not only. For Americans, the Irish poet represents an ideal of
bardic authenticity: rustic, romantic, mystical, embattled and vatic. Poetry is
Irish. For Americans, divided and troubled Ireland itself is an antidote to its
own unbearable lightness of prosperity and power (despite recent horrors).
Christ-haunted with a deep and mysterious history, Ireland is an exotic but
unthreatening presence for Americans. But it is also true that Ireland's strug-
gle for self-definition against colonial power still resonates with America's
own historical struggles for self-definition, despite the irony of its current
position as reigning global super-power.

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All of these factors may have contributed to the strong presence in re-
cent decades in the history of Irish poets at American universities. During
the 1980s and 1990s, Seamus Heaney maintained a teaching position at
Harvard, one he inherited from Robert Lowell. Thomas Kinsella taught at
the University of Southern Illinois and Temple University before his relatively
recent return to Ireland. Paul Muldoon is now a fixture in the writing pro-
gramme at Princeton University and Eavan Boland is professor at Stanford
University. Derek Mahon has also been in residence at New York University
and Yaddo. There may be, of course, a simple explanation for this presence:
the United States has the jobs and the money and has become something of
an economic brass ring for distinguished Irish writers. Vincent Buckley once
described this phenomenon with a sharp and, perhaps, cynical eye:

What do Irish poets hope for? To be thought number one. America. What do
they fear? To fall down the competition table. Never to be thought number one.
To be denied America . . . Irish poets in general are like ambitious youngsters
trying to escape from the working class. America is the upper-middle class.
Their vertu, however, their source of their energy and appeal, is in the Irishness
which they are trying to escape; they have therefore to emphasize this or some
version of it. Their destiny, their complex fate, is not become Americans, but
to be Irish in relation to America.2

It is too easy to reduce the Irish presence in America to competition and


economics. And it is also unfair to see Irish poets as merely playing Irish
to please the American mob, though no doubt Muldoon, among others, is
highly conscious of the way members of a tribe can be transformed from
savages to cigar-store Indians and into tricksters depending on the audience.
The elusive nature of Irishness and the way America serves as place to es-
cape its traps may be a theme for poets as diverse as Heaney, Kinsella and
Muldoon. The chaotic politics of contemporary Ireland, particularly in the
North, has obviously contributed to the richness of its poetry and the United
States has become something of testing ground for the trials and pleasures
of exile and displacement, the liberating experience of confrontation with
moderate and welcoming otherness.
Kinsella's relationship to America is an interesting case of a man going
away only to return to himself. Many have remarked on the influence of
Williams and Pound, for example, on the style and technique of Kinsella.
In one short lyric entitled 'Wyncote, Pennsylvania: A Gloss', Kinsella calls
attention to the sensuous intensity, desire, delicacy, fear and ephemerality of
his experience of the nature of things presented with particularly imagistic
technique: a mocking-bird gulping a red berry which flies away into a storm.
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intensify the sense of being everywhere in a changing world and producing


the joy and fear essential to the intensification of the writer's art:
Another storm coming.
Under that copper light
my papers seem luminous.
And over them I will take
ever more painstaking care.3
This gloss becomes somewhat ironic in that Wyncote was the childhood
home of Ezra Pound, expatriate to be and a godfather of international mod-
ernism. Here Kinsella, a Dubliner teaching at Temple University, imagines a
locus amoenus in the home town that Pound rejected. One man's provincial
prison becomes another's inspiration.
Despite Kinsella's efforts to bring poetry in Irish to national and global
attention, he has not enjoyed quite the same reputation in the United States
as some of his peers. His own modernist techniques may go against the ex-
pectations that some may have for Irish poets to be the last unembarrassed
practitioners of romanticism's passion for nature, the lost past, and the op-
pressed. In 2002, a front-page article in The Los Angeles Times on The Field
Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women's Writing and Traditions de-
scribed the book as an attempt to redress the exclusion of Irish women writ-
ers from the canon, an oppression within historical oppression: Throughout
Irish history, a vibrant and vital culture has fought to have its voice heard
against a louder and stronger neighbour. But while colonial ruler Britain
tried to ignore or silence the demands of Irish nationalism, a growing inter-
national literary reputation helped cement its cause. And now Irish female
writers have engaged in a similar struggle with the country's male-dominated
literary tradition'.4 This simplification of matters nevertheless attests to the
power and image of Irish literature and poetry in the world. And it does
reflect some of the questions and problems that have made contemporary
Irish poetry so interesting: the problem of whether there is a monolithic tra-
dition of Irish literature or, at least, a dual tradition: one trying to build on
a fractured Anglo-Irish past or one that reinvents the language.
Eavan Boland, whose photograph was featured prominently in the Los
Angeles Times article, has insisted on a distinction between history and the
past. For her, history is an imposition and projection on the silences and
sufferings of excluded voices that actually existed in the past. Some sang of
heroes while others were tortured or suffered in silence. Boland has chal-
lenged (or, interrogated) the attempts to use woman as the figure of Ireland,
as she does in 'Mise Eire' (1986; with a pun on 'ire'), rejecting a nationalist
poem by Easter Rising poet Patrick Pearse:

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I won't go back to it -
my nation displaced
into old dactyls,
oaths made
by the animal tallows
of the candle - 5

However much she displaces herself from the imagined past, she remains in
dialogue with it in ways similar to a number of her contemporaries. Boland
also adds to the complex and ironic reinvention of the pastoral (or anti-
pastoral) that has been found in Kavanagh, Montague and Heaney. Pro-
claiming to start afresh in 'The New Pastoral', (1982) the woman is no
longer a romanticised 'shepherdess' but only 'lost':
I'm a lost, last inhabitant
displaced person
in a pastoral chaos.
All day I listen to
the loud distress, the switch and tick of
new herds.
But I am no shepherdess.

Boland is not alone among her contemporaries - and not women only - in
rethinking the feminine myths of Irish identity or of its pastoral traditions,
though probably few could claim such simplicity and directness.6
Yeats remains the great meteor not only of Irish poetry but of poetry in the
last hundred years. The variety, mystical vision, and sonic power of his work
have made him as close as anyone has come for a name for poetry. As much as
his name stands alone, it is almost always now shadowed by the words 'after'
and 'since'. Yeats's efforts at establishing an Irish national consciousness
and, later, at Nietzschean transcendence from a tower of mysticism and
art have raised endless questions about the traps of attempting either. His
reception in America was complex: from Robinson Jeffers's embracing of
the Yeatsian 'tower beyond tragedy' to Robert Frost's view of him as a
talented but 'false soul'. To be the successor to Yeats is to assume the highest
position in the realm of poetry and yet to become something of a tyrant, if
not embarrassment.
W.H. Auden's elegy 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats' has contributed signif-
icantly to the world's imagination of what any successor to Yeats might
achieve. From the pen of a British emigre who settled in America came a vi-
sion of Yeats as figure of universal force whose gift survived history, politics

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and personal silliness and could be seen as an inspiration for freedom and
for praise. Yeats's own late advice from 'Under Ben Bulben' was,

Irish poets, learn your trade,


Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

Cast your mind on other days


That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.7

This is echoed and transformed in the trochees of Auden's elegy which di-
minish the concerns of national identity and character and stress the need of
the poet to inspire individual and universal human dignity:

Follow, poet, follow right


To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;8

The Yeats who strove to create a 'special Anglo-Irish culture from the main
unwashed body' has been fading somewhat in contemporary Irish poetry
before the Joycean impulse for immersion in the 'filthy modern tide', 9 as
Yeats called it in 'The Statues', of global modernity.
After Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh took a peculiar and influential anti-
modernist step, engaging the Irish peasantry but in an ironic and most
un-Yeatsian way. In 'Epic', Kavanagh asserts confidence in the local and
the parochial as the sufficient landscape for the ragged heroes. (Kavanagh
distinguished between the parochial and provincial, arguing against the lat-
ter because of its secondary relation to the urban). The world becomes de-
capitalised and local matters can take on prominence and even closeness,
paradoxically, to the universal. In particular, the attitude toward matters of
alleged global importance and vatic rhetoric become diminished before the
integrity of the local, dramatised in the sonnet 'Epic' (1951) in the colloquial
vocal posture that dares to contrast Britain's selling out of Czechoslovakia
to Hitler in the 1938 'Munich bother' with the deciding of great events,
'who owned / That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land / Surrounded by
our pitchfork-armed claims'. He asks the question about 'Which / Was more
important?'

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I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.10
Kavanagh uses the pastoral ironically: the parochial and the world of the
farm in The Great Hunger (1942) harbours neither peace nor happiness but -
stripped of traditional mythology and attuned to local tenor - reveals the
longings and frustrations of the human heart and continually mocks the
tourist mythology of Irish peasantry that had been perpetrated by Yeats.
This placed Kavanagh in a line with a set of problems associated with
pastoral thought in American culture and society - the Jeffersonian love
of the rural and the pastoral and the land over and against not only the
urban but national consciousness. The premier American poet investigating
these problems of pastoral Utopia and dystopia was Robert Frost, and his
work would in its efforts have a significant influence on contemporary Irish
poets, particularly Heaney and Muldoon. Kavanagh seemed less interested
in Irish national identity or provincial realism than in a parochial approach
to human longing.
Heaney, who grew up on a farm, returns often in his poetry to his rural
beginnings, though he focuses on what the experienced imagination brings
to its landscapes of unlettered youth as a way to uncover the source of
being. And that source often finds itself expressed in the sensuous joys of
speech and language. Heaney has found in America a liberating distance
from his own original sense of self,11 and he owes much to American po-
ets and their fascination with landscape imagined into line and sound. The
pleasure Frost took in luxuriating in voice as an expression of the primor-
dial self became attractive to Heaney who had also found in Hopkins and
Burns the reanimation of the marginal sonorities. Frost proposed the view
that sentences were sounds upon which words were strung and asserted that
those sentence-sounds exist first in the vernacular and in talk: 'A sentence
is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung . . .
[Sentence sounds] are apprehended by the ear. They are gathered by the ear
from the vernacular and brought into books. Many of them are already
familiar to us in books. I think no writer invents them. The most original
writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously'.12
When Yeats toured the United States in 1911 with the Abbey Players, Frost
was impressed by the Irish poet's emphasis on redeeming the idiom of the
language by attention to the vernacular of the peasant. Though Frost even-
tually became contemptuous of Yeats's poses, his notes at the time indicate

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his own iconoclastic desire to establish an American idiom by purging the


language of British literary idiom: 'I must have registered the pious wish I
wished in 1915 when the Germans were being execrated for having destroyed
Reims Cathedral. I wished they could with one shell blow Shakespeare out
of the English language. The past overawes us too much in art. If America
has any advantage of Europe it is in being less clogged with the products
of art'.1*
In his tribute to Frost, 'Above the Brim', Heaney follows him in argu-
ing that the cadences of speech 'reestablish a connection with the original
springs of our human being'.14 Heaney's artesial metaphor is important in
this context, for it underscores the imaginative and intellectual force behind
such figures in Heaney's poems, notably in an early keynote poem, 'Personal
Helicon' (1966).15 Against the mythic Helicon, we have the re-imagined
wells that populated the landscapes of Heaney's youth. Heaney regards as
particularly important the power of the poet to transform these fluid sources
into poetry, to quicken them into verb, and to set the landscape echoing.
He follows Frost's achievements in 'For Once, Then, Something' and nu-
merous other poems in which the primordial well of the past becomes a
place for the poet's soundings, not merely narcissism but clarification of
identity and selfhood, the voice with 'a clean new music in it'. Heaney's
preoccupations are not with nostalgia per se but with a longing for the
source, for a centre of integrity against the confusions and violence of the
present:
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.16
In fact, Heaney takes delight in something 'beneath all adult dignity', as
though the child's play is a way out of the seriousness and conflict of an
adult world but still aware of 'darkness'. The poem moves from the personal
to the mythic, the local to the global to a kind of celebration not of an
imprisoning past but a liberating one. 'Bogland', (1972) also regarded as a
signature Heaney poem, mythologises the quest for a grounding centre that
holds. It does so consciously against the imagined vast American prairie,
what Frost called 'the land vaguely realizing westward', and celebrates the

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poet's vocation as 'digging', an archaelogical quest for the deep source that
lies beneath the palimpsest of history. The bog may yield the skeletons of the
past, but beyond them, deeper still, is the oceanic water that carries influences
out and into America through oceanic 'seepage':

Our pioneers keep striking


Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.

Heaney achieves a happy-sad recognition of this 'bottomless' centre as well


as the levelling lack of originality, however fresh, of each new generation
contributing to the endless cycles of history that build an elusive and shifting
groundwork.
Frost's emphasis on the power of the colloquial and provincial has com-
plex political force, with playful rebuke of the falsity and weakness of
gentrified posturing. When Heaney praises Frost's embodiment of collo-
quial speech, he focuses on this integrity: 'The curves and grains of the
first two lines of 'Desert Places' are correspondingly native to the living
speech, without any tone of falsity'. Heaney deliberately echoes one of
Frost's own metaphors for good art, the ax-helves hand-made by French-
Canadian woodchoppers: 'You know the Canadian woodchoppers whittle
their axe-handles following the curve of the grain, and they're strong and
beautiful. Art should follow the same lines in nature, like the grain of an
axe-handle. False art puts curves on things that haven't any curves'.17 Frost
dramatised this view of art in his complex eclogue 'The Ax-Helve' that fea-
tures an encounter between a Yankee and a French-Canadian woodchopper
named Baptiste. No doubt Heaney recognised the complexity of Frost's al-
legiances, not only to the Yankee narrator of the poem but to the outcast
Catholic, Baptiste. Many of Frost's most interesting and subversive char-
acters and those most associated with the curves and grain of nature are
French-Canadians. No doubt Irish writers would recognise, even more than
most contemporary American audiences, the ethnic and racial tension in
such poems, though even as astute a reader as Tom Paulin can be limited in
his perception of Frost's complex allegiances.18 Frost's comment that, 'We
think the word 'provincial' is a shameful word here in America . . . You can't
be universal without being provincial, can you? It's like trying to embrace
the wind',19 found a receptive audience in Irish poets locating themselves
against the authority of standard English and embracing 'the undersound

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of [their] own non-standard speech'. Praising Frost, Heaney has asserted


that 'his notion of poetry being dependent upon "the sound of sense" is
probably under-regarded as "poetics" because of its huge simplicity, but it
has been deeply relevant to that historically important shift in English lan-
guage poetry in this century which saw (and heard) the entry of specific local
intonations - Irish, Scottish, Caribbean, Australian - into the central English
line'. 20
Tom Paulin, despite his objections to what he sometimes interprets as
Frost's imperial politics, also finds the American bard's emphasis on the
'sound of sense' and on the discovery of origins in the play of the vocal imagi-
nation. Frost and the idea of wild and aboriginal in language comes strongly
to the fore in the title poem of Paulin's 1999 collection 'The Wind Dog'.
Against Biblical and Virgilian epic vatic authority, Paulin invokes Frost's
pastoral faith in the rhythms of ordinary speech.

not to role out the Logos


-at least at the start
or say in the beginning was the Word
-not to start with a lingo
with the lingo jingo of beginnings
unsheathed like a sword
stiff and blunt like a phallus
or Masonic like a thumb
-not to begin the arma virumque
-plush Virgil
but to start with the sound
the plumque sound of sense . . .
-Farmer Frost that is
used to call sentence sound
because a sentence he said
was a sound in itself
on which other sounds called words may be strung21

Paulin's evocation of 'Farmer Frost' may be somewhat facetious because he


probably knows that Frost hated farming. But Paulin still recognises that his
pastoral and georgic poetry (itself a self-conscious literary tradition) as well
as his emphasis on the evocation of less literary and polished sounds of the
rural and marginal voice form an important guide to a powerful form of
imaginative experience.
Heaney's emphasis on local intonations and local settings reaches beyond
the provincial, and the violence and ruins of the present are made more
poignant in the excavations of the ancient past. Heaney draws connections
he finds in Tacitus between sacrifice to a fertility goddess and the sacrifice one

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might make in the name of Republicanism to the eternal feminine embodi-


ment of nationalist identities. In The Tollund Man' (1972), one of several
of his extraordinary bog-people poems, the past becomes another country
inspired by RV. Glob's The Bog People and its photographs of an ancient
sacrificial victim excavated from the Netherlands. The deep past could be
used, and indeed has been used, to justify the present. Heaney refuses such
justification, and finds only the possibility of imagining 'the sad freedom' of
the Tollund man as he rode to his execution as well as alienation from the
pointing 'country people'. As Heaney imagines himself journeying to another
land, he imaginatively feels the freedom of impending death, at once an exile
from the world's cruelty and a victim of violence. The imaginative excava-
tion only intensifies the alienation Heaney feels in the present, as he imagines
driving through the Jutland landscape: 'In the old man-killing parishes / I
will feel lost, / Unhappy, and at home'. Heaney meditates in later poems on
the lives of the sacrificed, outcast and submerged, even meditating upon the
transubstantiated crustaceans of 'Oysters' or of 'Away from It All', poems
which raise the question of how far one can ever be suffering even in the
midst of transforming pleasures. The pleasures of the purely aesthetic are
an assertion of freedom against, among other things, the pressures of the
politics of identity and oppression:22

To locate the roots of one's identity in the ethnic and liturgical habits of one's
group might be all very well, but for the group to confine the range of one's
growth, to have one's sympathies determined and one's responses programmed
by it was patently another form of entrapment. The only reliable release for
the poet was the appeasement of the achieved poem.23
Often, the aesthetic wholeness with which Heaney's poems seem to conclude
is mitigated by a sense of the limits of transforming suffering and torture
into art.
Despite the desire to allow the deep past to teach and heal present suf-
fering, it often seems to leave the contemporary poet with a sense of doubt
about the value of his craft and a challenge to the imaginative vocation. The
line between the human and the aesthetic blurs in Heaney's bog poems as
these urns of human history tease us out of our sense of permanence and
complacency. If one looks into the deep past, what can be gleaned from it
other than ruins? This is the kind of question that haunts the romantic and
modern mind. It also enables one to envision the relation between modern
Greek and Irish poets, particularly Seferis and Cavafy. Of course both Joyce
and Kazantzakis drew on Homer's Odyssey to ground their own search for
paternity. Other parallels have been duly noted by scholars of Hellenistic
culture:

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Both nations still had a peasant tradition at the beginning of the century. Both
Ireland and Greece have had a disaspora; both were occupied for centuries
by a foreign power; both were were dominated by a single Christian church;
intellectuals in both felt on the fringe of things . . . ; both needed to deal with
a 'language question'; both reached back to a glorious past in order to feel
distinguished yet at the same time suffered constrictions owing to ancestor-
worship; both exalted the 'folk' as repositories of virtue and wisdom; both
were mightly influenced by the American Revolution and by the phenomenon
of a 'national bard'; both experienced grave internal discord that undermined
the national purpose; and both experienced civil wars.24

Seferis's 'King of Asini' (1938) is an example of a poem of Greek modernity


that has been clearly influential on such contemporary Irish poets as Mahon
and Heaney for the way it focuses on an individual mentioned but once in
Homer, a figure of ancient history, and turns him imaginatively into 'a mud
image', for all that might still be recovered from the ruins of both the past
and the present:

And the poet lingers, looking at the stones, and asks himself
does there really exist
among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows and curves
does there really exist
here where one meets the path of rain, wind and ruin
does there exist the movement of the face, the shape of the tenderness
of those who've waned so strangely in our lives,
those who remained the shadow of waves and thoughts with the
sea's boundlessness
or perhaps no, nothing is left but the weight
the nostalgia for the weight of a living existence
there where we now remain insubstantial, bending
like the branches of a terrible willow tree heaped in unremitting despair
while the yellow current slowly carries down rushes uprooted in the mud
image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness has turned to stone:
the poet a void.25

The real presence of the human spirit in the ruins may be no more than the
isolated projections and acts of the poet's mind and uncertain ground upon
which to imagine any personal or collective identity.
Some of Derek Mahon's meditations on the anthropological consciousness
and the passage of history would seem to be in dialogue with such a poem. In
Mahon's world, the silent rebuke the living, and the line between civilisation
and barbarism becomes blurred. As Seamus Deane has noted, 'Mahon does
not seek to have a sense of community with the kind of Ireland which is
so dominant in Irish poetry. All his versions of community depend on the

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notion of a disengagement from history achieved by those whose maverick


individuality resisted absorption into the official discourses and decencies.
Beckett, Villon, Cavafy, Rimbaud, de Nerval, Munch, Malcolm Lowry got to
form that miscellany of outsiders whom he transforms into his own specific
community, members of an artistic rather than an historical continuum,
rebels haunted by a metaphysical dread'.26 Historical consciousness leaves
those in the present adrift in their own diminished world from which no
conquest can comfortably proceed. Mahon seeks even more than Heaney to
escape history, and he allows the inanimate and the inarticulate to resist and
mock being trodden upon. In 'Lives' (1972), a poem dedicated to Heaney, the
speaker parodies the attempt to empathise with those swallowed by history
and warns against the 'insolent ontology' of romantic consciousness:

I know too much


To be anything any more;
And if in the distant
Future someone
Thinks he has once been me
As I am today,
Let him revise
His insolent ontology
Or teach himself to pray.27

'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' (1975), finds Mahon speaking not only of
the neglected of the Irish countryside but through thefigureof mushrooms re-
sponding to the light of tourists, speaking of all those forgotten and perished
through centuries of cataclysm - human and inhuman - from the terrors of
ancient Vesuvius or the Nazi genocide. In Auden's poem, 'Musee des Beaux
Arts', there is some irony because the narrator who proclaims that suffering
occurs while others are casually walking along is himself casually strolling
through a gallery of art interpreting (in the tradition of ecphrasis, or verbal
descriptons of visual works of art or mute phenomena) suffering through the
paintings of 'the old Masters', mostly Breughel. In Mahon's poem, instead
of a great Belgian museum and great paintings, we have a disused shed and
fungi, and those mute and seemingly unimpressive phenomena ignored by
the casual observer or countryside tourist are given great presence and voice:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,


To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!

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'Save us, save us,' they seem to say,


'Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in the darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labors have been in vain!'

The mushrooms, to paraphrase Mahon, are everything that can be heard


imaginatively, the human and the non-human, everything that cries out to
be noticed and remembered, as he suggests in 'Heraclitus on Rivers' (1979),
in a world of relentless flux:
You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

The willingness to question the value and power of art in relation to the
atrocities and demands of reality has been part of the rhetoric of poetry for
centuries but has come into renewed focus in the twentieth century primarily
as a result of its war and genocide. The poets of Eastern Europe have become
models for those attempting to navigate the terrible waters of irreconcilable
political conflicts and maintain a place for art amidst incomprehensible bar-
barity and human suffering. For Heaney, the work of Zbigniew Herbert,
Osip Mandelstam, and particularly Czeslaw Milosz have been instructive in
defining the path of exile - from national allegiance and from history - as the
essential mode of poetic consciousness.28 Heaney was born in Co Derry in
Northern Ireland but his experience of the extreme sectarian violence drove
him to the Republic. A Catholic and Nationalist, Heaney was appalled by
violence on both sides of the conflict. The focus of his poetry on the rural
aspects of his youth reflects a conscience in flight, astray from the warfare of
sectarian politics but unable to escape the pain of displacement and the guilt
of a non-participant. Milosz, a Polish Catholic born and raised in Lithuania
also lived a life of continued flight from coercions. Eventually he left Poland,
unable to accept the advent of the communist regime but remained racked
by guilt because of his decision to leave his homeland. Heaney recognised in
Milosz an ability to recover human dignity, however, poignantly by return-
ing to the pastoral dreams of his youth, imagining heaven in the midst of hell
on earth. The beginning of one of Milosz's great tapestries 'From the Rising

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of the Sun' (1974) begins and remains true to the experiences of his youth -
and mankind's youth - in the provinces before the march of knowledge, ex-
perience and history. The voice of the individual poet encompasses within
himself his own growth and sophistication as well as that of mankind:

Whatever I hold in my hand, a stylus, reed, quill, or ballpoint.


Wherever I may be, on the tiles of an atrium, in a cloister cell, in the hall
before the portrait of a king,
I attend to matters I have been charged with in the provinces.
And I begin, though nobody can explain why and wherefore.
Just as I do now, under a dark-blue cloud with a glint of the red horse.
Retainers are busy, I know, in underground chambers,
Rustling rolls of parchment, preparing coloured ink and sealing wax.29

The double conscience that haunts Milosz as he moves back to the provinces
and finds it as a source of integrity against the experiences of the world also
haunts Heaney most poignantly in the poems of his 1987 volume The Haw
Lantern (a book which owes much not only to Milosz but the more austere
parabolic poems of Zbignew Herbert), particularly 'From the Republic of
Conscience', and 'Alphabets'. The republic of conscience has the qualities of
the provinces, the old country of youth:

At immigration, the clerk was an old man


who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

In a discussion of his attraction to Milosz's world of provincial Lithuania,


Heaney underscores the mystical and mysterious: 'what attracted me in
Milosz was a sense of a pre-Reformation world, a stirring of the Catholic
unconscious. What happened to the English language after Shakespeare was
that it was kind of swept clean of a lot of pre-reformation association and
melody . . . So what is in the poetry of Milosz for an Irish person from
my kind of background is largely cultural ratification, a Dantesque corrob-
oration that says, yeah, the universe is much bigger than the Thirty-Nine
articles. The language leads you into the eternal. . . ' 3 °
Yet this eternal world exists only in relation to the temporal, and the fact
that one must travel between these worlds gives poignancy to the imag-
ined one. Heaney was moved by the poignant irony of Milosz's 'The World'
(1943), a sequence reconstructing a child's world - not unlike Blake's Songs

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of Innocence - in the midst of the second World War. Such a bi-focal vision
appeals to Heaney and gives tremendous poignancy to his poems that estab-
lish an equilibrium between past and present and loss and redemption. In
an early sonnet, T h e Forge' (1969), Heaney meditates through 'a door into
the dark', on a vanishing way of life and an image of labour that becomes
transformed into an altar of Hephaestan art:

Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring,


The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immovable: an altar
Where he expands himself in shape and music.

The balance between human and object, creature and creation has some
of the innocence and circumscribed knowledge of a child who has not yet
given in to noise or waste. Over twenty years later, Milosz, abandoning
some of his interest in creating polyphonic tapestries, will begin his book
entitled Provinces with a Heaney-like meditation entitled 'The Blacksmith
Shop' (1991):

I liked the bellows operated by rope.


A hand or foot pedal - I don't remember which.
But that blowing, and the blazing of the fire!
And a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs,
Red softened for the anvil,
Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe,
Thrown into a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.31

Milsoz's attention to that sublime moment when the red-hot metal merges
with water to form steam is one of many little reconciliations of tensions and
opposites crucial to the celebration of being. His stated object in poetry was
'to find my home in one sentence, as if hammered in m e t a l . . . An unnamed
need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos
and nothingness'. Both poets find the need through poetry to create a home,
a home made more poignant because it has been lost or threatened by time
and history. The power of the concise luminous moment containing a world
attracted Heaney from the beginning of his career and found a receptive
audience in Milosz in the later part of his own. Milosz included Heaney's
powerful sonnet from the sequence 'Clearances' - 'When all the others were
away at Mass/1 was all hers as we peeled potatoes' - in his 1991 anthology,

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ROBERT FAGGEN

A Book of Luminous Things. The restoration in poetic remembrance of a


beloved relationship beyond the rituals even of parish and priest unite both
poets' sensibilities.
Milosz's theological preoccupations and his distrust of the aesthetic make
him, for all his achievement as a poet, more sceptical of art and the pleasures
of language than Heaney. One can see the tension between the two sensi-
bilities in Heaney's reading of Milosz's 'Incantation', a poem that Milosz
regards as completely ironic in the context of history. Heaney admires the
sheer 'above the brim' verbal and rhetorical force of the poem as evidence of
its value. In an article in The New York Times, Heaney invoked the poem as
an example of the moral force of art when it dares to envision or to enchant
us into seeing what otherwise would seem impossible:

It is thrilling to hear the ideal possibilities of human life stated so unambigu-


ously and unrepentantly. For a moment, the dirty slate of history seems to have
been wiped clean. The lines return us to the bliss of beginnings. They tempt us
to credit all over again the liberations promised by the Enlightenment and har-
monies envisaged by the scholastics, to believe that the deep well of religious
and humanist value may still be unpolluted . . . And yet there is something
problematic about what is being said. While the lines do have original force,
the evidence of the ages is stacked against them . . . Mr. Milosz's irony saves
him and his poem from illusion and sentimentality; the tragic understanding
that coexists with the apparent innocence of his claims only makes those claims
all the more unyielding and indispensable.32

Yet both poets feel the tension between history and contemplation, a desire
to escape the world of action in which all forces seem coercive or worse.
Echoing a favourite passage from Milosz's autobiographical Native Realm,
Heaney suggests why the tortured consciences of some Northern Irish writers
find the move to a distant plane of regard liberating:

The poet is stretched between politics and transcendence and is often displaced
from a confidence in a single position by his disposition to be affected by all
positions, negatively rather than positively capable. This, and the complexity
of the present conditions may go in some way towards explaining the large
number of poems in which the Northern Irish writer views the world from
a great spatial or temporal distance, the number of poems imagined from
beyond the grave, from the perspective of mythological or historically remote
characters.33

Spatial and temporal distance gives Heaney's 'Alphabets' particular power


as he sounds the development of his own experience. Heaney places great
value on the recovery of a preternatural, almost Adamic language (his own
'soundings' reminiscent of Thoreau's in Walden) though he seems alternately

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to rejoice in and suffer from the alienation that has come from the process
of education. In 'Alphabets', Heaney's own education recapitulates the de-
velopment of modern man - from the farm and its simple technology to the
sophistication that would send us into space and provide us a new view of
our planet. The alienation from the source created by education and travel
can also bring us back to an astonished sense of the miracle and strangeness
of growth and of life, from beginning to end, from alpha to omega. Heaney
rejoices in the sonority of the Greek letter 'omega', as it resonates with an-
other ancient Greek word he loves for its sensuous and sensual sonorities,
the 'omphalos', the naval and origin and its relation to the Latin 'ovum', and
the primal, vernacular utterance of wonder, 'agog':

. . . As from his small window


The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum -
Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.

At the end, Heaney's work chooses to remain parochially 'agog' to the mys-
tery of existence, going with, as well as behind, the sophistications and plea-
sures of language to exalt the primordial consciousness. Heaney, the dolor-
ous Dantean pilgrim of Station Island (1984), confronts the spectre of Joyce
exhorting him to the joy and sensual play of language:

'. . . The main thing is to write


for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of the breasts.'

The impulse to this Joycean play in exile and cunning and the joy of
language in contrast to the elegiac dwelling on history and earnest spiritual
pilgrimage finds a master in Paul Muldoon, particularly in his longer poems
of journey, 'Immram', 'T